Denver Will Vote on Proposed Sales-Tax Increase to Support Mental Health

Representative Leslie Herod and Gabrielle Rodriguez at Thursday's event.EXPAND
Representative Leslie Herod and Gabrielle Rodriguez at Thursday's event.
Chris Walker
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When Gabrielle Rodriguez was 22 years old, she realized that she was addicted to alcohol. But as an undergraduate student at a college in Kansas City, surrounded by peers who regularly drank and partied, where could she turn for help? With assistance from a family friend, Rodriguez entered a twelve-step program, which helped, but it wasn't the best fit.

"I was the youngest in the twelve-step program by a decade,” Rodriguez explains. “I made it work because I needed it, but months into my recovery, I realized, if I'm feeling this way, there must be other young people wanting to get sober but aren't because there aren't any peers to join or support them."

She created a youth support group in Kansas City and has continued to focus on youth recovery since moving to Denver a couple years ago for graduate studies.

Rodriguez sees an unmissable opportunity to shore up support for young people who are facing mental health or substance abuse hardships in Denver through a ballot initiative this November. Caring 4 Denver aims to raise $45 million annually to increase the amount of mental health and substance abuse services in the Mile High City. Last night, August 9, Rodriguez was among those who shared stories at the Caring 4 Denver ballot initiative launch at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Colorado state representative Leslie Herod, whose team was able to collect more than 10,000 signatures to get Caring 4 Denver on November’s ballot — more than twice the signatures necessary. More than a hundred people attended the initiative kickoff at the MCA, including Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman and the city’s new police chief, Paul Pazen.

The Caring 4 Denver initiative proposes raising $45 million annually by increasing Denver’s sales and use taxes by a quarter of 1 percent (an additional 25 cents on a $100 purchase).

The initiative’s sponsors say that the money would address numerous public health and criminal justice crises facing the Denver area, such as extremely high suicide rates, increasing opioid overdoses, and elevated recidivism rates (cycling in and out) at the city’s jail among those struggling with mental health or substance abuse disorders — which is costly to manage.

Denver is seeing an average of three opioid overdoses a day, and a study released on Wednesday by the University of Colorado Boulder found that one in twenty teens showing serious conduct or substance abuse problems dies by suicide in Colorado before the age of thirty.

"We have an obligation, as a society and people who care, to make sure people have the resources that they need," Herod told the crowd at the MCA.

If voters pass Caring 4 Denver, Herod said, “Not only would it mean that you'll have expanded resources at places like the Mental Health Center of Denver, it also means you'll be able to access resources where you work and play, like right here at the MCA. Imagine if mental health and addiction and talking about things like suicide and depression was more woven into the fabric of who are as Denverites. Imagine if we had a mental health counselor in every single one of our schools in Denver, not just the ones that can afford it."

Herod said her campaign was looking to raise as much as $500,000 to get the initiative passed. And in a follow-up interview with Westword, she also displayed lots of optimism for the initiative’s prospects.

She says early polling by her campaign found overwhelming bipartisan support among voters, and the ballot initiative has yet to receive any challengers.

“The thing we're concerned about is the fact that it's already a crowded ballot,” she says. “It will get noisy, and we have to break through that noise."

At the launch event, Herod shared a story about her sister, who has struggled with substance abuse. Adam Lerner, the MCA’s director, also began his speech on a somber note by mentioning the late Colin Ward, who was central to Denver’s DIY scene before his tragic death.

Storytelling will be central to the Caring 4 Denver campaign; a website already offers testimonials from supporters who’ve gone through personal struggles. The campaign hopes to crowdsource as many testimonials as possible and distribute posters throughout the city advertising those stories before November.

"We've heard stories of heartbreak, of success, of triumph, and we can have more of those stories,” Herod proclaimed last night. “We can save more lives by doing one thing: voting yes on Caring 4 Denver in November. It's that easy."

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