Kniech, Hancock Pushing Sales Tax Increase for Homeless Services

Will Denver voters approve a sales tax increase to help the city's homeless?
Will Denver voters approve a sales tax increase to help the city's homeless? Evan Semón
Councilwoman Robin Kniech and Mayor Michael Hancock just unveiled a proposed ballot measure that would raise the Denver sales tax by .25 percent to help fund services for the city's homeless population.

"The people of Denver have been passionate about improving our city's response to homelessness, and I'm grateful for the community-council-mayoral partnership that will help us deliver on that shared goal," says Kniech, an at-large member of council, in a statement noting that money generated by the sales tax would "increase housing options, rental assistance and supportive services. It also would increase and enhance shelter capacity and quality, allowing for 24-hour services, counseling and case management."

There is already $98 million earmarked for housing and homelessness in the 2020 budget, according to Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for the Department for Housing Stability. Kneich says that the sales tax increase would pull in well over $40 million annually, although in 2021 the amount would likely be several million dollars lower because of the COVID-19 economic downturn.

The unveiling of the proposal, which would need to be approved by Denver City Council in order to get on the November ballot, comes a little over a year after Denver voters rejected I-300. That initiative would have revoked a number of laws that homeless advocates saw as criminalizing homeless individuals, such as the urban camping ban. Faced with a well-funded opposition — which campaigned under the slogan "We Can Do Better" — that initiative garnered minimal support from voters.

Earlier today, July 1, the Hancock administration indicated that the mayor supported both this sales tax increase and a proposal to set up temporary safe camping sites for the city's homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As our community overwhelmingly agreed last year during the debate over Initiative 300, we can do better. Supporting these proposals is a step in the right direction," Hancock says in a statement.

Although Kniech hasn't formally presented the plan to her colleagues on council, she says that when she told them about the idea, it met with a lot of enthusiasm.

She acknowledges that the timing of the sales tax increase is "awkward," given the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Denver's sales tax revenue is expected to drop 16.8 percent for 2020, according to a mid-June presentation by Brendan Hanlon, the city's chief financial officer.

Even so, Kniech says, the city has to move forward with the proposal because "it's so urgent," as people experiencing homelessness are "on the very front line of risk."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.