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Denver voters could decide on sales tax for mental health

April 14, 2018 Updated: April 14, 2018 at 2:49 pm
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State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, announces a ballot proposal to raise sales tax by .25 for mental health and substance abuse services. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Denver Voters this November could decide on a 0.25 percent sales tax to support mental health and addiction services.

The 10-year tax would raise $45 million annually to help steer people into care and away from much more expensive jail cells and hospital beds, said state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.

Herod was joined by former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, now president and chief executive of Mental Health Colorado, at a campaign kickoff event April 5.

The campaign is called Caring for Denver. Herod cited dismal statistics about mental health, drug abuse and suicide in the city.

"I think the most tragic part of it all is that people who know they need help can't get it," said Herod, who has worked extensively on the issue in the statehouse.

Robert Clark, the president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver, said one in five people in the city are dealing with a mental health or substance-abuse issue.

"Everybody knows somebody who's dealing with this problem," Clark said. "What we want is for the door to be wide open for anybody to get the help they need.

The city's current total sales tax is 7.65 percent, counting local, state, transit and cultural facilities fees.

Backers would need about 4,700 signatures to place the measure on the city's November ballot.

Herod said a poll commissioned by supporters found that eight in 10 people in Denver would support the increase to help adults and children, including suicide prevention and detoxification programs.

"Denver cares - Denver actually cares - and I'm excited about that," she said.

Herod said the money would support a robust new infrastructure in the city around mental health and drug abuse prevention. The money would be overseen by a community board that would provide grants to providers with a track record, as well as offer new programs that are effective, not supplant existing budgets.

The city and county of Denver, Denver Public Schools, Denver Health Medical Center, and law enforcement, as well as care and advocacy organizations, would have roles in building that infrastructure, Herod said.

Clark said some, but not all, schools have mental health counselors. First responders encounter people in mental health crisis but have nowhere to take them to get help other than a hospital or jail.

"They'd much rather take those people to a place where they could get treatment rather than take them to jail," he said.

Romanoff spoke from a personal standpoint of how two of the women who meant the most to him both fell into a deep bout of depression. His sister sought help and is alive today. His cousin did not get care and died from suicide.

"I want more Coloradans to be able not only to seek care but to find it," he said.

He said seeking care isn't enough if it can't be found or afforded. He said 500,000 Coloradans today go without the care they need.

"We know mental illness is real, and we know that it's treatable," he said, adding that millions of Americans are alive today to prove it."

Colorado ranks 43rd nationally among states for its availability of services, according to Mental Health America.

"It's time for Denver to step up, and I think this measure would help," he said.

Romanoff said the tax hike makes abundant sense from a fiscal standpoint.

"It turns out to be a lot cheaper to treat mental illness than to criminalize it," he said.

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