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Columbia Missourian

Voters embrace county sales tax for children's mental health

By Grace Lyden
November 6, 2012 | 11:22 p.m. CST
Cande Iveson, left, speaks with Christine Corcoran at a watch party for Proposition 1 on Tuesday at the Country Club of Missouri.

COLUMBIA — After failed attempts to create a tax for mental health services in 1994 and 2007, a permanent quarter-cent sales tax for children’s mental health services was approved Tuesday by 57.2 percent of Boone County voters.

The measure, which lead from the first returns, was favored by 41,246 voters and opposed by 30,807, or 42.8 percent.

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"It's kind of surreal," said Christine Corcoran of Putting Kids First, the coalition of social services in Boone County that campaigned to get the tax on the ballot. "It's been two years of long, hard work but a great team."

Corcoran joined other supporters gathered Tuesday evening for dinner at the Country Club of Missouri with the "Putting Kids First" buttons, stickers and bright red T-shirts that marked the campaign.

“It’s been a really organized, grassroots effort to get where we are tonight,” Bob Whittet, a member of the 45-person coalition, said. Whittet was also on the Boone County Board of Mental Health, which disbanded in March and was responsible for the two earlier attempts to create a tax.

Both Whittet and Georgalu Swoboda, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters, collected signatures on initiative petitions during the summer to get the tax on the ballot and did door-to-door canvassing in recent months.

"I have knee problems because of it," Swoboda said. "But I think it's all worth it."

Big Brothers Big Sisters lost 60 percent of its government funding in the last two years, Swoboda said. Her organization is one of the agencies that has the potential to receive funding from the tax.

Services that can receive funding include temporary residence, transitional living, outpatient psychiatry and therapy for children and their families, according to the state law that allows counties to levy a tax for children's mental health.

Seven other counties in Missouri have already passed taxes for mental health services focused on children.

The tax will generate an estimated $5.4 million annually, based on sales tax collections in 2009, according to Corcoran.

Money will start going into a county fund in April, and it will be three to four months before there is enough money for agencies to start making proposals for funding, Boone County Commissioner Karen Miller said.

The law outlines how money is to be divided, which is according to the decisions of a nine-person, nonpartisan board appointed by the county commission.

Corcoran said she would like to see conversations about board appointments as soon as possible.

"There is a little time, but I don’t like thinking that way," she said. "You want to make sure there’s a really good solid process in place so you can hit the ground running."

But Miller said she was in no rush.

"That board doesn’t need to be in place until there’s money to spend," she said.

Miller said the commission would first determine whether the board would be a division of county government or a standalone nonprofit organization, then discuss criteria for members.

Putting Kids First submitted examples of conflict of interest policies to the Boone County Commission about three months before the Tuesday election.

According to the policies, anyone with a tie to an agency that could potentially receive funding cannot be on the board, Corcoran said.

"We want to make sure it’s a diverse group of folks who understand the needs in Boone County, but they cannot have a tie to a potential funding source," she said.

The volunteer board members in the counties that have passed a similar tax have included school superintendents; accountants; and retired psychiatrists or psychologists who understand mental health issues but are no longer tied to agencies that could receive funding, Corcoran said.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.