Putting Kids First proposes sales tax for youth mental health services

Monday, March 19, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:51 a.m. CDT, Monday, March 19, 2012

COLUMBIA — After two attempts in the past 20 years to create a tax for mental health services, a coalition of more than 20 Columbia social service agencies is giving it another go.

If the Putting Kids First petition garners 7,000 valid signatures, the Nov. 7 ballot will include a quarter-cent sales tax to fund mental health services for children.

Mental health tax

WHAT: A petition drive to put a measure before Boone County voters that would generate money for mental health services for children and their families.

PETITION LANGUAGE: Shall Boone County, solely for the purpose of establishing a Community Children’s Services Fund (authorized under RSMO 67.1775) for the purpose of providing services to protect the well-being and safety of children and youth nineteen years of age or less and to strengthen families, be authorized to levy a sales tax of one-quarter of a cent in the County of Boone?

MORE INFORMATION: To sign the petition, visit Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri at 401 West Blvd. N. For more information, call 815-9955 or 1-866-326-LFCS.

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Seventy-two percent of Boone County voters opposed a one-eighth-cent property tax proposed in April 1994 by the Boone County Board of Mental Health. The board tried again in 2007, but the measure never made it to the ballot.

"Any effort at that time was purely discussion and was never developed," said Michele Kennett, co-chair of the Boone County Mental Health Board. "It just never got off the ground."

The board is not leading this initiative and has not formally voted on whether it endorses Putting Kids First, but it is represented on the campaign committee.

Christine Corcoran, director of Lutheran Family and Children's Services, wasn't involved in earlier efforts. She began organizing Putting Kids First two years ago when she noticed her organization's St. Louis branch expanding its staff as a result of tax funding.

Seven counties already take advantage of a Missouri statute that allows local governments to create sales taxes for mental health services that include counseling, family support and temporary residential services for children 19 and younger. A board of directors appointed by the Boone County Commission would decide how to spend the money for services that meet the statute's categories of services

Needs in Columbia

Putting Kids First contracted MU's Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs to perform a needs assessment in August 2011. Relying on 2010 data from 38 local social services and secondary sources such as the Missouri Student Survey, the results identified 934 people who were turned away from services due to lack of space or inadequate funding.

It would take about $3.94 million per year to fill these gaps, and the tax would generate an estimated $5.4 million annually based on sales tax collections in 2009, Corcoran said.

The number of people with unmet needs is an underestimate, Corcoran said, because families stop asking for services when they know there are no availabilities.

"If you go out and talk to school teachers and school counselors, they will say, 'We have so many kids that need x, y or z, and we have no place to refer them,'" Corcoran said.

The assessment identified 357 children who didn't receive counseling when they requested it. This includes psychiatric services, groups for children with trauma histories and family therapy. Some couldn't afford it; others were put on waiting lists for three months.

Inpatients at a loss

The need for mental health funding isn't new, but Kennett said the demand for services is greater than ever.

Tim Harlan, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for both Columbia and Missouri, said this need was particularly apparent with inpatients.

"We have half as many beds in Boone County, mental health beds, as we had 20 years ago, but a much larger population," Harlan said.

Many Columbia hospitals have decided to give up psychiatric beds to patients who come for expensive procedures, like knee-replacement surgery, Harlan said. This means Columbia parents of children with mental health disorders, such as major depression or bipolar disorder, often have to drive to St. Louis or Kansas City for inpatient treatment, he said.

But the tax wouldn't be much help to these families. "The statute determines broad categories of spending, and inpatient is not on that list," Kennett said. "Most would be considered preventative."

Corcoran said other counties have used the tax to fund bullying, substance abuse and suicide prevention efforts in schools. "If a significant amount of prevention is done, there isn't as much need for inpatient beds," she said.

Harlan said stronger outpatient care, too, can keep kids out of the hospital.

Getting on the ballot

Corcoran said the agency representatives involved in Putting Kids First, and any volunteers they can recruit, will be going "anywhere and everywhere" to collect the signatures of registered voters in Boone County.

"We need 7,000 signatures to get on the ballot, but really we need almost 9,000 because we know there's a margin of those signatures that won't be certified," Corcoran said.

When Putting Kids First representatives went to the Boone County Commission, which has the authority to put a tax to a vote without a petition, Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller encouraged the petition process.

"When you do a petition process, you are building voters who are going to support your initiative and bringing them along the way," Miller said. "I just think in order to be successful, you have to do it that way."

Miller also said she would prefer a property tax so that sales taxes could be reserved for government services. She did recognize a need for the funding, though.

"If children in school have mental health problems, they're disrupting everyone, and everyone has a learning problem," Miller said.

Corcoran said most people don't realize that poverty, homelessness and school dropouts all stem from untreated mental health problems, and volunteers will work to get that message out as they collect signatures.

"One of the issues is mental health is not talked about a lot, so people don't know what services are or are not available, and they don't know what kind of needs people have," Harlan said. "Part of this is an educational campaign to help people understand what kinds of problems kids have and that they aren't being treated right now." 

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