What’s next for mental health ballot measures?

By Kara Rowland

Fresh off key wins for mental health at the ballot box in November, Colorado voters are likely wondering: Now what?

This year, Denver, Larimer, San Miguel and Summit counties will begin collecting as much as $67 million in new revenue to help prevent and treat mental health and substance use disorders. School districts in Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas and Jefferson counties will steer millions toward school-based mental health programs while Boulder County is dedicating additional resources to meet the mental health needs of inmates. Pitkin County plans to boost its community mental health fund.

At Mental Health Colorado, we plan to work with local advocates to replicate these ballot measures across the state in the years to come. In the meantime, we’ll track how these dollars are spent—and encourage residents to take part in shaping vital new programs.

For most of these communities, the work of implementing these measures has just begun. Local officials, advocates and stakeholders are setting up advisory boards to direct these new revenue streams. But even if the ink on November’s ballot measures is barely dry, it’s not too early to look at what other localities have done.

Eagle County, which in 2017 approved a marijuana tax to fund mental health initiatives, collected $425,000 in 2019. County commissioners added $500,000 from a public health emergency fund, bringing the current sum to nearly $1 million for expanded mental health services.

To ensure that members of the community have a say in how these tax dollars are spent, Eagle County officials created the Total Health Alliance, a group open to anyone with an interest in improving the local mental health system. Members of the public can access a website  with a meeting calendar, notes and other resources to join the process or simply follow along. Meanwhile, county leaders tapped 10 stakeholders from law enforcement, health providers and consumer advocates to form a Mental Health Advisory Committee, which will make formal recommendations about which proposals to fund.

While advocates identified several gaps in Eagle County’s behavioral health system, a lack of school-based mental health counselors emerged as the most pressing concern. In turn, county commissioners adopted the advisory committee’s recommendation to dedicate the lion’s share of the revenue—$400,000—to expanding the availability of licensed mental health providers in schools. Commissioners allocated an additional $250,000 to mental health crisis response, jail resources, bilingual therapists, anti-bullying initiatives, and several local health organizations.

“We’re working together more aggressively than we ever have,” Eagle County Public Health Director Chris Lindley told me. “Folks are not accepting the status quo—they’re challenging the state, they’re challenging the federal government as to how we can improve the state of our care up here.”

Lindley said transparency has been key to implementing the 2017 ballot measure.

“We want the public to know everything we’re doing and we want them to be able to validate that these are the key things we need to do,” he said.

As the 10 additional jurisdictions begin collecting new revenue for mental health, we’ll provide updates on where the money is going and how residents can get involved. Here’s a quick look at the ballot measures we’ll be watching in 2019:  

  • Westminster Public School District residents approved a $9.9 million tax increase to fund (in part) additional mental health professionals and counselors. 
  • Aurora Public Schools voters approved a $35 million tax increase, a portion of which will go toward expanding staff and training dedicated to mental health. 
  • Boulder County will use proceeds from a 0.185 percent sales and use tax that was previously set to expire to fund the creation of an alternative sentencing facility at the county jail and to expand mental health services for inmates. 
  • Denver County will collect $45 million in new revenue to cover mental health, suicide prevention and substance use services.
  • Douglas County School District voters signed off on a $40 million tax increase, some of which will fund additional school mental health support. 
  • Jefferson County School District will allocate $6 million of $33 million in new tax revenue to increase the number of mental health professionals in the school district and to expand suicide prevention and substance use counseling. The district superintendent provided a breakdown of the allocation process in a blog post. 
  • Larimer County voters approved $19 million in new sales taxes to fund mental and health and substance use treatment and prevention services. 
  • Pitkin County voted to raise property taxes by $750,000, bringing its community health fund to more than $3 million, a portion of which will go to the prevention, intervention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. 
  • San Miguel County will raise $603,000 through property taxes to fund additional mental health counselors and programs in schools as well as suicide prevention and treatment for substance use disorders. 
  • Summit County is dedicating $2 million from a property tax increase to mental health services and suicide prevention.