CURTIS GARDNER: Aurora City Council should give voters a chance to decide on vital mental health funding measure 

Colorado is facing a crisis in mental health. Suicide, depression, drug and alcohol abuse — all proliferating in our neighborhoods at an alarming rate — are cutting the fabric of our communities and leaving horrific tales of loss and tragedy in their wake.

Lives, lost.  Families, destroyed.  Parents, mentors, teachers, friends, sons and daughters — gone forever at the hands of a crisis that seems to grow every day. It’s time for leaders of good faith to come together and act.

This week, I will introduce a resolution asking the Aurora City Council to vote on whether to refer to the ballot this November a measure that would ask voters to fund essential mental health services in our community. We know that the demand for mental health services and treatment has skyrocketed across the state and in our own Aurora community, especially amongst young people, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suicide is now the leading cause of death for Colorado children over age 10.

Children’s Hospital Colorado, which has a facility right here in Aurora, has seen a 90% increase in demand for mental health treatment in the past two years and recently declared a “state of emergency” for youth mental health for the first time in its over 100 year history. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital has seen a 13% increase in the number of kids who visit its emergency departments due to thoughts or attempts of suicide and an increase in the severity of suicide attempts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to kids experiencing chronic stress, which is a predictor of negative life outcomes, such as education performance challenges, later-in-life occupational difficulties, poor lifelong physical health outcomes, stronger likelihood to engage in alcohol or drug abuse, and more. Substance use deaths also spiked during the pandemic, with more Coloradans dying from drug overdoses in 2020 than any previous year recorded.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to act on this crisis this year and provide relief to both youth and adults in Aurora who are struggling with mental health and substance use challenges. To do that, we urgently need new resources to improve access to quality, affordable, community-based behavioral health care.

I have proposed a ballot measure to provide those much-needed mental health and substance use services to youth and adults seeking treatment in the City of Aurora. Voters would be asked to raise sales and use taxes by ¼ of 1%—or 25 cents on a $100 purchase—with exemptions for food, water, fuel, medical supplies, and feminine hygiene products.

If passed, the measure would raise at least $17.4 million annually for mental health prevention services and treatment for children, youth, adults, seniors, homeless individuals, and veterans; suicide prevention programs; and opioid and substance use disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery programs.

Safeguards are built-in to guarantee these new mental health funds are spent addressing the mental health crisis in Aurora.

Elected officials at every level have an obligation to try to address our current mental health state of emergency. By referring this measure to the ballot, my colleagues & I on the Aurora City Council will give voters a chance to make their voices heard on this urgent topic.

Mental health, substance use and the specter of suicide have touched nearly all of us.  The time for bold action is now. By providing critical mental health services, substance use treatment and suicide prevention to a larger segment of our community, Aurora will take the offensive.

Curtis Gardner is an At-Large Councilmember for the City of Aurora. 

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Patrick Smith
1 month ago

This is a fa

Jeff Brown
Jeff Brown
1 month ago

Perhaps CM Gardner could explain why the council shouldn’t first address the pitiful state of the city’s retail economy before claiming that any increase to the sales tax rate is needed. The chronically anemic retail is the root cause of the city’s financial challenge in providing adequate services across the board—including mental health.

Pre-COVID, Aurora’s retail sputtered 14% below the average of other Colorado cities, 48% below the 4th quartile and 59% below Denver when compared per capita. That means for every $1 in taxable activity occurring in Aurora for each resident, Denver’s seeing $1.59. If Aurora’s retail performed above average and reached the 3rd quartile, sales tax receipts would grow an additional $28 to 98 million.

With the state’s population climbing and land vacant near DIA, Aurora has the strategic opportunity to capture meaningful slices of both regional entertainment and tourism. Moreover, Aurora residents pay a .1% sales tax for cultural facilities. After over 30 years of subsidizing Denver’s culture, the council could pursue a solution where the $7.1 million in cultural tax collected in Aurora would be invested in amenities and programming to attract visitors to Aurora to spend. By not pursuing such a strategy, the council continues to leave $28 to 98 million per year in tax receipts on the table.

CM Gardner’s proposal clearly comes from the heart. But as a matter of revenue policy, there is a far stronger solution to addressing the city’s core challenge.