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Tax increase for mental services is a divisive issue

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

James Boyd, mentally ill and homeless, died this spring after a confrontation with police in the Sandia foothills.

His shooting ignited street protests and galvanized activists’ push for police reform.

But it contributed to a quieter debate, too, in the meeting rooms at City Hall – about how to help people struggling with mental illness before they end up in handcuffs or worse.

Now Bernalillo County wants voters’ opinion on at least one idea: raising taxes to pay for new mental- and behavioral-health programs.

The Nov. 4 ballot includes an “advisory” question that would poll voters on whether they support a one-eighth percent gross receipts tax that would raise about $20 million a year. In Albuquerque, the tax rate would climb from 7 percent to 7.125 percent.

Opponents say there’s funding already available that could be realigned to support mental-health services without going to taxpayers for more.

Supporters say it would provide a vital new funding source for programs that aren’t yet offered – including, perhaps, a stabilization center where police could take people in crisis, rather than to jail or an emergency room.

In any case, the election results aren’t binding. The County Commission has authority to increase taxes on its own.

MAGGIE HART STEBBINS

MAGGIE HART STEBBINS

“It’s clear from all the studies that have been done that there is inadequate funding for mental-health services, for addiction services, and I believe it’s something that needs to be addressed,” Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said in a recent interview. “We pay for the lack of services in other ways.”

Voters, she said, “have an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, we care about this and we’re willing to provide the funding to do this right.’ ”

Commissioner Lonnie Talbert doesn’t see it that way.

“I support the fact that we need to figure out how we can cover the cost of mental health in the county, the city and the state,” he said. “I’m not sure yet whether we need to increase taxes to do that.”

LONNIE TALBERT

LONNIE TALBERT

Opponents are arguing on another track, too, pointing out that the question simply asks voters for their opinion. They say “poll questions” are inappropriate for a general-election ballot.

The ballot also includes an advisory question on marijuana decriminalization – a move Republicans say is an attempt to boost voter turnout among left-leaning voters, a charge Democrats deny.

“If you don’t like the fact that they’re playing with the ballot, using this for political purposes, what you ought to do is vote ‘no’ on both those questions and send them the message that they shouldn’t be playing games with the ballot this way,” Commissioner Wayne Johnson said.

The debate has fallen along party lines. The County Commission voted 3-2, Democrats in the majority, last month to add the questions.

In favor were Hart Stebbins, Debbie O’Malley and Art De La Cruz, all Democrats. Opposed were Johnson and Talbert, both Republicans.

New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran, a Republican, refused to put the questions on the ballot, but the state Supreme Court ordered her to do so. The court said she didn’t have authority to block the questions, though it didn’t take up the underlying issue of whether advisory questions are proper.

Seeking solutions

A massive, bipartisan task force of city, county and state officials is examining ways to improve mental-health programs. Its recommendations include starting a crisis stabilization center, a step-down from a jail or an emergency-room setting.

Supporters envision it as a place where family members could take people who are in crisis or struggling with their mental health but not a threat to themselves or others. Clients could talk to mental-health professionals, take a break or even sleep.

The task force also recommended better “case management,” or systems that connect people with services already available. A third recommendation focuses on the need for housing where people struggling with mental illness could get long-term help. There are other suggestions, too.

The task force, however, hasn’t taken a position on the need for a tax increase to fund any of the ideas.

More taxes or not?

Commissioner Johnson said the county already conveys property-tax revenue over to the University of New Mexico Hospital, and some of that money could be “re-tasked” for mental-health priorities.

“I think there are plenty of resources available,” Johnson said. “I’m absolutely against just raising taxes.”

A county property tax already in place raised more than $78 million for UNMH last year. The hospital estimates that it spends about $13.9 million of the money on behavioral-health services, including work with mental-health patients released from the county jail.

The property tax plays “a critical role in allowing us to maintain and deliver highly specialized services to New Mexicans,” a spokesman said.

The city and county also have other money set aside for mental-health programs. The city, for example, funds about $2.5 million in social-service contracts for mental health, with funding from both the general operating budget and a quarter-cent public safety tax adopted by voters a decade ago.

The quarter-cent tax provides about $30 million a year for spending on public safety – with 26 percent dedicated to crime prevention and intervention, such as substance-abuse treatment. The authorizing legislation in 2003 didn’t require that any funds be used specifically for mental-health programs.

The city, however, has used some of the money for that purpose. This year’s budget, for example, includes about $1.8 million in quarter-cent money for “Assertive Community Treatment” programs at UNMH and elsewhere – services aimed at people with severe mental illness whose needs aren’t met through traditional programs.

Johnson agrees with supporters that there’s much to be done, regardless of disagreement over whether to raise taxes.

“There is little doubt this has become an issue for public safety and public health,” Johnson said. “We need to address (it) in some substantive way.”

Hart Stebbins said the new money would be spent wisely. She won’t support increasing taxes, she said, unless a specific, well-vetted plan for spending the money is in place.

City Councilor Klarissa Peña, a Democrat, is also urging support. Almost everyone knows someone who’s struggled with mental health or addiction, she said.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to address the underlying issues that affect our community,” Peña said. “Mental-health and substance-abuse issues cut cross ethnic and socioeconomic status. … We are all in this together.”

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