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Guest opinion: Judy Amabile: Repurpose an existing county sales tax for mental health

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify State Rep. Judy Amabile’s district. Amabile represents Colorado’s House District 13. Amabile is running for reelection in House District 49, which was created through the recent redistricting process. 

By Judy Amabile, Joe Pelle, Michael Dougherty and Grant Besser

Boulder County’s recent citizen survey indicated that 69% of respondents would support extending an existing 0.185% sales tax to improve access to behavioral health services in our community.

This solid indicator comes at a good time, and offers us a rare opportunity.

The state has just allocated nearly $500 million dollars in Federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to increase mental health resources throughout the state.

This federal money will start flowing in 2023. Local governments and care organizations can use it to build mental health infrastructure. Communities can get funding to stand up supportive housing, group homes, respite care facilities, substance use treatment facilities and many other uses. Once these places are up and running, local communities will need to provide ongoing funding for the services they provide.

Repurposing Boulder County’s current 0.185% sales tax, which has fully funded the alternative sentencing facility and jail modernization improvements underway now, is a smart way to secure this ongoing funding (as much as $10 million a year) without raising taxes for Boulder citizens.

Boulder County’s survey results reflect the urgency of our current circumstances. Coloradans are experiencing an epidemic of homelessness, youth suicide, drug addiction and overdose deaths. Yes, the pandemic exacerbated these issues, but years of neglecting our treatment infrastructure has created a critical mass of bad outcomes.

For example, this year Mental Health America ranked Colorado poorly compared to other states in access to adult mental health care. The respected non-profit cited the glaring gap between the need for care (high rates of addiction and serious mental illness), and the ability to access care. The fact is, Colorado’s mental health landscape is dismal for all ages, with soaring suicide and overdose deaths afflicting our youth.

In our own community, we’ve grown tragically accustomed to the human misery of homelessness. But as the number of unhoused people has grown — especially those with untreated mental health disorders — communities are feeling quality-of-life impacts and becoming motivated to find viable solutions.

Current approaches are not working. People with untreated mental illness and addiction disorders often end up in jail, where they don’t get the specialized medical care they need. The environment of incarceration makes them sicker, more likely to reoffend and caught in a cycle that’s extremely difficult to break.

This approach is inhumane and wasteful and makes our community less safe. We need more strategies.

Colorado counties including Larimer, Denver and Summit have voted to tax themselves to fund mental health care services within their communities. They realize it’s unsustainable to rely on incarceration to deal with serious behavioral health issues, and recognize that all of their citizens need greater access to quality mental health care.

Budgets are a reflection of values. By taxing themselves, these communities are making the upfront investments necessary to turn the tide on a problem that has developed over decades. Importantly, they are positioning themselves to make the most of the federal dollars that soon will be available to communities. Boulder County should too. This is how real change can start.

A mental health tax would work hand-in-hand with a host of programs the state has just set in motion. In addition to allocating federal dollars for capital mental health infrastructure, the legislature passed a new jail-diversion program for non-violent offenders with mental illness and several measures to increase Colorado’s mental health workforce.

In Boulder County, we have already seen the success of this approach. The District Attorney’s Mental Health Diversion Program, the only one in the state, connects low-level offenders with treatment in the community. By providing stable treatment and medication, we have lowered the likelihood these individuals will re-offend due to unmet behavioral health needs. This successful program makes a positive difference for the offenders, victims and the community. But we can and should do more. People should not have to hit the doors of the jail in order to receive mental health treatment.

The synergy of federal dollars and voter willingness to pay for behavioral health services would offer Boulder County an extraordinary opportunity to make additional progress on the difficult issues that untreated, serious mental illness and addiction can create for a community. Let’s commit to investing in services that will help our most vulnerable citizens become healthy and whole again.

Join us in calling for this initiative to be added to the ballot in 2023. Our community wellbeing depends on it.

Judy Amabile represents Colorado House District 13. Joe Pelle is the Boulder County Sheriff. Michael Dougherty is the Boulder County District Attorney. Grant Besser is the president of the Boulder Community Health Foundation.