Backers of Denver's mental-health tax measure say they'll file plenty of signatures

Andrew Romanoff, then president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, and state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denve announce the Caring 4 Denver initiative outside the Colorado Capitol in 2018.

A new stream of tax revenue will help Denver bolster mental health and substance abuse treatment options in the city.

In fall 2018, Denver voters approved the Caring 4 Denver initiative, which authorized a .25% tax sales hike, or 25 cents on a $100 purchase. The estimated $36 million annually will help the city strengthen its mental health, suicide prevention, and substance abuse treatment programs and options.

A contract with the Caring For Denver Foundation, which would manage the fund, is expected to go before the Denver City Council for a vote on Aug. 19. The contract was approved Aug. 7 by the council's Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee.

The city began collecting the new tax revenue in the beginning of 2019 and has since created a special fund. If the contract is approved, Denver will transfer the funds to the foundation, which will then distribute to causes deemed worthy.

“This is something that is really unique,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, who largely led the Caring 4 Denver ballot initiative effort, during the committee meeting Wednesday.

Herod said the ordinance was crafted “specifically so we had the opportunity to ensure the funds were not supplanting existing resources and getting out into the community in a really nimble way.”

In bolstering treatment options in the city and county, Caring 4 Denver will focus funding on housing for those in need of mental health or substance abuse treatment, as well as training for first responders, said Will Fenton, legislative liaison for the Denver Department of Health and Environment, at the Aug. 7 committee hearing.

 Through this effort, the foundation hopes to reduce homelessness, improve long-term recovery, and curb the use of jails and emergency room visits. 

Additionally, monies will go toward fully funding a program through which mental health experts ride along with law enforcement and training for first responders on interacting with those with mental health/substance use disorders. No more than 5% can be spent on administrative costs annually, per the contract, Fenton said.

The foundation will begin a survey, intended to help develop funding priorities, of the Denver community in September that will last through the end of the year. 

In response to a question from Councilwoman Robin Kniech about mental health service gaps in the city and county, foundation Executive Director Lorez Meinhold said the foundation will use data from the Denver Health, the Office of Behavioral Health, Denver Public Safety and a mayor’s council of behavioral health, among other resources, to help identify areas that have otherwise fallen through the treatment gaps. 

In a prior role on the Denver Immigrant and Refugee Commission, Councilwoman Jamie Torres said the body was concerned about the prevalence of mental health issues in those communities, especially as it relates to trauma. She said she hopes the foundation will be looking closely at those communities when drafting it strategy. 

A 13-person Caring 4 Denver foundation board — appointed by the Denver mayor, City Council president and Denver district attorney — will help oversee the fund. 

The foundation anticipates issuing its first grants in early 2020.

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