Aurora Mental Health Center pushing for sales tax increase to fund more services

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AURORA | The city’s independent mental health agency and a group of stakeholders are likely going to ask voters this fall to raise sales taxes to boost local programs, and early polling shows residents willing to approve the plan.

A coalition, including the Aurora Mental Health Center, Mile High Behavioral Healthcare and a group of other community groups, is leading the ballot question effort, which would ask voters to raise the city’s sales tax a quarter of a percent. That would generate approximately $16.2 million each year, according to AMHC’s legislative and community director, Debbie Stafford.

That money would fund mental health prevention services and treatment for children and veterans, suicide prevention efforts, substance abuse treatment and training first responders and mental health experts.

The coalition has dubbed the effort the Caring4Aurora Ballot Initiative, modeled after the successful venture in neighboring Denver. The money raised from the sales tax would be passed through to a non-profit organization called Caring4Aurora, which would consist of a board appointed by the Aurora mayor and city council members.

That non-profit organization established by the voters would then be able to award money to programs through a request for proposal process. “The hope would be that the non-profit would prioritize (grants) how voters prioritize (issues),” Stafford said.

Mental health workers in Colorado say there’s less money to fund prevention, and this tax proposal would address that.

Kathie Snell, the chief operating officer for the Aurora Mental Health Center, previously told the Sentinel there’s more money in intervention. The organization writes grants to try and shore up that difference and helps get behavioral specialists into schools in Aurora’s two school districts, Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District.

Early polling done by Keating Research found that public support for the ballot initiative is high. Of 400 likely voters in Aurora polled, 72 percent said they’d voted yes on a 0.25 percent sales tax. The tax would add 25 cents tax on each $100 in taxable purchases in the city.

“We can safely say the support is there,” Pollster Chris Keating told city council members at a study session this week. 

In Denver, the similar ballot measure passed with 70 percent of the vote in 2018. Like the Aurora proposal, it also increased the sales tax by 0.25 percent, raising approximately $45 million each year for mental health services, suicide prevention and substance abuse programs.

“I thought there would be support, but I was sure appreciative of the polling results,” Stafford said. 

In 2018, APS was able to pass one of the most notable mill levy overrides in recent history because the campaign focused around behavioral health resources.

The mill levy override passed by a wide margin to create a $35 million fund for mental health services in schools, teacher raises and school safety measures. Much of the funds will be spent to place more social workers, therapists and counselors in schools – sorely needed personnel, according to some teachers who say they aren’t equipped to run a classroom and give traumatized and mentally ill students the support they deserve.

Keating, who has been conducting polls for more than two decades, said those high polling numbers were present across all regions of the city, and could be partially because one in three polled said they know someone suffering from a mental health or substance abuse issue. 

Even so, the coalition didn’t get the support of city council members to expedite putting the question on the ballot for 2019. Instead, the majority of councilors said they’d like to take more time and consider it for the 2020 ballot. 

The city has until September 6 to certify ballot content. That would have only given the body a few city council sessions to work through the language of the question.

Stafford said the group will go the effort alone, but would have preferred the support of the lawmakers.

Now, the coalition will need to collect 11,000 signatures to make the November ballot.

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