Tax to aid mental health in the works

Organizers concede persuading voters will be a challenge.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:37 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ten years after Boone County voters overwhelmingly rejected a property tax tagged to fund area mental health services, boosters of a similar effort now in its infancy see significant obstacles in convincing a cost-conscious public.

Last month, voters in St. Louis approved a property tax of 19 cents for each $100 of assessed value to finance a community children’s services fund. Also, Jefferson and St. Charles counties added a sales tax of one-eighth of a cent to create a similar pot of money for juvenile mental health.

After conferring with officials from those jurisdictions, Roland Meinert knows what he’s up against in his attempt to pass a similar tax in Boone County.

“This is going to be a difficult job,” said Meinert, chairman of the Boone County Mental Health Board. “How do you convince a community that funding local mental health is just as important as funding roads, schools and fire protection?”

In 1994, 72 percent of Boone County residents voted against a property tax calling for an 8-cent charge on every $100 of assessed property value.

St. Charles County passed its children’s mental health sales tax on its fourth attempt. The St. Charles County Children and Family Services Authority spent $53,000 in the process.

Meinert said he was surprised by the cost of the public information campaign, which included a campaign consultant and a voter poll. “We don’t have the money in the bank or professional staff time, which will make this quite challenging,” said Bob Whittet, a Boone County board member and vice president of central operations for Pathways Community Behavioral Healthcare. “We will have to have a grassroots campaign.”

There is no estimate on how much the local campaign will cost, but Meinert said it is going to be expensive. So far, the board has only raised $1,000 toward the effort.

The board, which met Monday to discuss the future initiative, is exploring three possibilities: a sales or property tax for children’s services or a property tax for mental health services for the broader community, regardless of age. The group noted that all the taxes passed in the St. Louis area highlighted children services.

Before the measure is placed on a local ballot, the board wants to first fine-tune a needs assessment compiled last February, organize a media campaign and upgrade its Web site.

“We need to start letting people know about these needs,” said board member Kerri McBee-Black, who works for Planned Parenthood. “But, you can’t go out there without a message.”

At this point, the board is still trying to determine the focus of its campaign message. The needs assessment showed a need to focus on inpatient and outpatient services for children and adolescents. Family life is being disrupted and school performance suffers in some cases, the survey showed.

“We need to look at the needs assessment again,” Whittet said. “We need to tell the community what this means.”

In its campaign, the board plans to use fliers, television announcements, yard signs, telephone pitches to voters and letters to the editor and op-ed pieces.

“Widespread media coverage is necessary,” Meinert said. “Specific target audiences must be identified and messages crafted for each of them.”

The board also agreed that town hall meetings, forums and presentations are necessary. Board members also hope to see support for the tax effort from at least 25 other agencies, including churches, hospitals, unions, business groups and civic organizations.

“We need more people than this board to get this done in four years,” Whittet said.

The board has not set a time frame for the ballot measure but is looking at election dates no sooner than 2006 and as distant as 2008. The board will not move ahead this time until members are confident the tax will pass, Meneirt said.

The tax proposal must be approved by the county commission before it reaches the ballot. Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre said he is reserving judgment until he learns more from the mental health board.

“I would definitely want to know how the money is going to be used,” he said.

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