Trustees seek to fill mental health fund

A proposed mental health tax could be put to voters in 2009.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:42 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Boone County voters may finally get the chance to vote on a tax measure to fund mental health services.

The Boone County Mental Health Board of Trustees met Monday afternoon to discuss strategies for approaching county commissioners and Boone County voters with the tax proposition 13 years after it was first introduced. The tax could appear on the ballot as early as spring 2009.

“Funding for mental health services is not a high priority politically,” said Bruce Sowatsky, executive director of the Community and Children’s Resource Board of St. Charles County. “It’s not the sexy thing, like education or economic development. It took us 15 years just to get to this point.”

The board of trustees discussed creating a presentation and business plan for county commissioners, who must approve the proposed tax before it can appear on the ballot. The board has not yet determined when the presentation will be made, but board director Michele Kennett said during the meeting that the best time would be after July 30, the date the “Putting Kids First” funding workshop is scheduled to take place at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Columbia.

The creation of a mental health fund has been the board’s central mission since it was established in 1992 by a state bill. The board first attempted to pass a 1/8 cent mental health property tax in April 1994. It failed to pass after 72 percent of voters cast their ballots against it.

Several times since then, the board has discussed with the press revamping and re-introducing the tax, but it has remained elusive about any dates until now.

“Our goal isn’t to knock heads with anybody or to be in competition with any other proposed measures,” Kennett said.

One person who has experience with the obstacles facing the board is Sowatsky. St. Charles County’s community and children’s resource board is holding “Putting Kids First” to help mental health board members from other counties learn from the experiences of the St. Charles board.

“We tried two times unsuccessfully to pass a (mental health) tax, once in 2000 and once in 2002,” Sowatsky said.

St. Charles County passed a 1/8-cent sales tax in November 2004 to create a Community Children’s Services Fund, which generates $5.4 million each year for children’s mental health and children’s substance abuse services.

According to Sowatsky, other proposed tax measures have the potential to sink a mental health tax, especially if they are completely unrelated.

“Back in 2002, the state added a gasoline tax and sales tax to the ballot, and they killed everything in their path,” he said. “We had already filed (our proposed tax), and it was too late to withdraw.”

Boone County board members said they might not put the tax measure on the general election ballot in November 2008 because they are concerned about competing legislation that could make voters wary of the proposed tax.

“With limited resources in a general election, we couldn’t get enough votes,” said board member Bob Whittet.

Sowatsky was careful to point out that his county passed a sales tax, not a property tax.

“Polling back in 1999 told us a property tax wouldn’t pass, but it varies by county,” Sowatsky said. “The City of St. Louis passed a (mental health) property tax.”

Boone County board members did not reveal during the meeting the amount of the tax or whether it would be a property tax or a sales tax.

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