By Judy Amabile, Joe Pelle, Michael Dougherty and Grant Besser
The recent Boulder County Citizens’ Poll 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 strong indicator is timely and presents us with a rare opportunity.
The state just allocated nearly $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds to increase mental health resources across the state.
This federal money will begin flowing in 2023. Local governments and care organizations can use it to build mental health infrastructure. Communities can get funds to set up supportive housing, group homes, respite care facilities, addiction treatment centers and many other uses. Once these places are operational, local communities will need to provide ongoing funding for the services they provide.
Redirecting the current 0.185% sales tax from Boulder County, which has fully funded the Alternative Sentencing Center and ongoing prison modernization improvements, is a smart way to secure this continued funding (up to 10 million dollars a year) without raising taxes on the citizens of Boulder.
The results of the Boulder County survey reflect the urgency of our current situation. Coloradons are experiencing an epidemic of homelessness, youth suicide, substance abuse and overdose deaths. Yes, the pandemic has exacerbated these issues, but years of neglect of our processing infrastructure have created a critical mass of poor outcomes.
For example, this year, Mental Health America ranked Colorado poorly compared to other states for access to adult mental health care. The respected non-profit organization 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 suicides and overdose deaths plaguing our young people.
In our own community, we have tragically grown accustomed to the human misery of homelessness. But as the number of homeless people has increased – especially those with untreated mental health conditions – communities are feeling the impacts on quality of life and becoming motivated to find viable solutions.
Current approaches are not working. People with untreated mental disorders and addictions often end up in prison, where they do not receive the specialized medical care they need. The environment of incarceration makes them sicker, more likely to reoffend, and caught in a cycle that is extremely difficult to break.
This approach is inhumane and unnecessary and makes our community less safe. We need more strategies.
Colorado counties, including Larimer, Denver and Summit, have voted to come out on top to fund mental health care services within their communities. They realize that relying on incarceration to address serious behavioral health issues is unsustainable and recognize that all of their citizens need better access to quality mental health care.
Budgets reflect values. By stepping up, these communities are making the initial investments needed to turn the tide on a problem that has grown over decades. Above all, they are positioning themselves to make the most of the federal funds that will soon be made available to communities. Boulder County should too. This is how real change can begin.
A tax on mental health would go hand in hand with a host of programs that the state has just set in motion. In addition to allocating federal funds for capital mental health infrastructure, the legislature passed a new diversion program for nonviolent 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 reduced the likelihood that these individuals will reoffend due to unmet behavioral health needs. This successful program is making a positive difference for offenders, victims and the community. But we can and must do more. People shouldn’t have to knock on prison doors to get mental health care.
The synergy of federal dollars and voters’ willingness to pay for behavioral health services would provide Boulder County with an extraordinary opportunity to make further progress on the difficult issues that serious mental illness and untreated addiction can create for a community. . Let us commit to investing in services that will help our most vulnerable citizens get healthy and healthy again.
Join us in calling for this initiative to be added to the ballot in 2023. The well-being of our community depends on it.
Judy Amabile represents Colorado House District 49. 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.