Eagle County voters approve marijuana tax to fund mental health programs
By Randy Wyrick
EAGLE COUNTY — Eagle County has its own marijuana tax, following months of proponents jonesing for it.
Ballot Issue 1A won in a landslide, with support from more than 73 percent of voters.
"Eagle County voted to save lives. It was a bipartisan effort to put this over the top," said Andrew Romanoff, CEO of Mental Health Colorado.
The tax on recreational marijuana could generate an estimated $2 million annually for county coffers. Of that, the first $1.2 million is supposed to be spent on mental health and substance abuse programs in the Eagle River and Roaring Fork valleys.
“Eagle County voted to save lives.”Andrew Romanoff CEO, Mental Health Colorado
"We are extremely excited and grateful with the results," Chris Lindley, Eagle County's human services director said. "This is a clear message from the residents that we all need to do better as it relates to mental health.
" I look forward to working with all partners in the community and the commissioners to ensure we have the biggest impact possible. Eagle County will be the healthiest place to live, work and play."
OTHERS ARE WATCHING
Many Colorado counties were watching what Eagle County did Tuesday, Romanoff said.
"They might want to do something similar. It could be a model for the whole state," Romanoff said. "The community was following this argument through the newspapers and other means.
"At the end of the day, the argument in favor of mental health is overwhelming."
A 36-member oversight committee will make recommendations to the Eagle County Board of Commissioners about how that $1.2 million in recreational marijuana tax money will be spent.
The commissioners will not spend the money without a recommendation from this committee of stakeholders, ranging from mental and behavioral health specialists to local law enforcement.
So far, the big three needs for the community that they'll be assessing for funding:
• Working with the school district to bring in school-based clinicians who will work with kids who have mental health challenges.
• Bringing in mental health counselors to the Eagle County jail, where currently 70 percent of the inmates are on psychotropic drugs.
• Providing funds to the Hope Center in Basalt to help transition that facility to a licensed crisis stabilization unit.
"It's a lot less expensive and a lot more humane and smarter to treat mental illness than to ignore it or criminalize it. Turning our jails into mental hospitals is indefensible, immoral and idiotic," Romanoff said.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Before Tuesday, Eagle County did not have its own marijuana tax. Right now, the state returns $250,000 annually to Eagle County from its 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax, which doesn't cover much more than the administrative costs associated with licensing local dispensaries.
Eagle County's sales and excise taxes will be levied on recreational marijuana sales and will be phased in. Each is scheduled to start at 2.5 percent and cap at 5 percent. These taxes will be layered on top of the county's existing 4 percent sales tax on all retail products and the state's above-mentioned taxes.
Eagle County voters to decide if marijuana taxes will fund mental health care
Vail Daily via Park Record.com (Park City, Utah)
By Randy Wyrick
Eagle County, Colorado, voters will decide whether to tax marijuana to pay for expanded mental health programs.
The Eagle County commissioners voted unanimously Friday morning to put a question on the November ballot asking if voters are willing to add local sales and excise taxes to local marijuana retail sales and cultivation and spend as much as $1.2 million of that new tax money on mental health programs.
“I call this a courageous step for filling this void, this vacuum for mental health in our community. It’s a huge step in sustainability … for people who need hope in their lives,” said Greg Daly, Avon’s police chief and board member of Speak Up, Reach Out, a local suicide-prevention organization.
MENTAL HEALTH ‘EPIDEMIC’
Mental and behavioral health issues have become an “epidemic,” said Chris Lindley, Eagle County’s director of human services.
Vail Health’s Sheila Sherman said the hospital’s number of mental health cases has skyrocketed in the past three years:
“If we were talking about sexually transmitted diseases or the flu, we’d be calling those numbers an epidemic,” Lindley said.
Many people with mental health issues land in the Eagle County jail because there’s nowhere else for them, said James van Beek, Eagle County Sheriff.
“Last year at this time, 70 percent of the jail inmates were on some kind of medication. I still have people in my facility who should not be there. That is not the place for them,” van Beek said.
Jail could be avoided for 20 percent to 25 percent of the people incarcerated, if the county had a mental health facility, van Beek said.
Half the people incarcerated have their first experience with a mental health professional when they land in jail, said Jill Ryan, Eagle County commissioner.
The cops don’t like marijuana, but it’s here, said Daly and van Beek.
“We’re the tip of the spear. We deal with those calls,” Daly said. “When we’re dealing with people under those circumstances, they should be treated as patients, not pseudo-suspects.”
Mental health is a widespread need the county needs to focus on, said Kathy Chandler-Henry, county commissioner.
“The need is clear, the will to do something is clear. What remained was how to do it. Now we’re asking the voters what they think,” Chandler-Henry said.
PROGRAMS, NOT BUILDINGS
The pot tax money will pay for programs, not buildings.
While Mind Springs will run the mental and behavioral health programs, Mountain Family Health would fund a building separately, similar to a facility it’s constructing in Frisco.
Two buildings are envisioned as part of all this — one in Edwards and one in Basalt, Lindley said.
Mountain Family Health is a federally qualified health center that provides medical, dental and behavioral health care for low-income people, said Ross Brooks, Mountain Valley Health CEO.
In their case, low income means 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $24,000 for an individual and $49,000 for a family of four, Brooks said.
The county owns land in Edwards’ Freedom Park that it would donate for a building, said Bryan Treu, interim county manager.
An Edwards building would be between 12,000 and 15,000 square feet per floor, Brooks said.
The county would likely add another story to house a mid-valley annex for the county’s health and human services department, Treu said.
COLORADO’S CASH CROP
Because Eagle County does not currently have its own pot tax, the county’s marijuana money comes from the state’s 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax.
Last year was Colorado’s third year of regulated pot sales. Colorado’s statewide excise tax generated nearly $200 million in statewide marijuana tax revenue in 2016, stemming from $1.3 billion in marijuana sales, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Eagle County spent $14,000 for a poll by Boulder-based Magellan Strategies. Poll results found that as many as 78 percent of the 400 likely voters questioned said they would support a tax.
Eagle County would join 10 counties and 76 municipalities across Colorado that levy their own pot taxes.