Northern Colorado mental and behavioral health facility headed back to voters
By: Saja Hindi
July 24, 2018
Dozens packed the Larimer County Commissioners hearing room Tuesday.
As commenter after commenter took the microphone, continuous pleas were made for the commissioners to allow voters to reconsider a ballot initiative they said was vital to the community — a tax to fund a new mental and behavioral health facility.
During his turn to speak, Loveland resident Bob Massaro turned around and asked how many people in the audience knew someone who either died by suicide or attempted suicide.
Almost every hand in the room went up.
Larimer County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously agreed to refer the question to the ballot after more than a dozen people spoke in favor of the issue and one against.
But they made one change: If the measure passes, the county will collect the .25 cent sales tax (25 cents per every $100) over a 20-year period, rather than 25.
Commissioner Steve Johnson said when the ballot issue failed in 2016, one of the major concerns people who voted against the tax mentioned was that it would be collected over too long of a period of time. Now, if the need is still there in 20 years, a new board of county commissioners can discuss the potential to extend the tax.
“This proposal is vastly different than the one we ran two years ago,” Johnson said.
Larimer County hired Laurie Stolen, who was working in Alternative Sentencing, to lead the county’s behavioral health effort, which included community outreach and focus groups with residents who voted against the tax in 2016.
While Fort Collins voters favored the ballot measure that year, it failed to pass in any precinct in Loveland, the Estes Valley and most of unincorporated Larimer County.
Now that the measure is on the ballot, it will be up to residents to take on the charge of advocacy work.
Stolen told commissioners Tuesday that a continuum of care available to residents will help reduce repeat emergency room visits and criminal justice costs by reducing repeat charges.
Planning Commission Vice Chairman Jeff Jensen told commissioners that although he voted against the issue in 2016, this year, he is fully in support of it.
And he pointed out that he and the Republican commissioners are supporting a new tax because mental and behavioral health issues are nonpartisan.
That’s one reason advocates of a new facility say something needs to change: services and providers aren’t always available in Larimer County when people need it most. The new facility will also allow those who can’t afford services access to the help they need.
“It’s clear that the continuum of behavioral health options for young people and their families is incomplete in Larimer County,” said Dr. Melanie Potyondy, a school psychologist.
Out-of-area placement makes after-care for in-patient treatment and family involvement more difficult, she said. For lower-income students on Medicaid, the wait times are even longer.
Potyondy said students who are suffering from substance abuse issues also lack the care they need in the county for in-patient options, some of her students having been placed all the way in Pueblo for treatment.
“We need a comprehensive mental health center, and we need satellite services in our smaller communities,” she said.
Carol Plock, executive director of the Health District of Northern Larimer County, recognizes that it will be difficult to meet all the county’s needs but said she believes they can “go way down the path” of addressing critical gaps by funding a new facility.
Several speakers shared their own stories of family members who have struggled with mental health or behavioral issues, from clinicians to a student to county residents.
But county resident Eric Sutherland cautioned against the commissioners’ vote, citing fiscal and pragmatic concerns. He said he wasn’t opposed to the merits of the issue but said the ballot issue is “an extremely large tax increase,” and no arguments were made about the sufficiency of the amount requested.
Ultimately though, commissioners approved referring the question to the ballot, with Johnson calling it likely the most important issue he will have faced in his 10 years as a commissioner.
Originally appeared in The Coloradoan.