King County voters will decide in April whether to support a new property tax levy that would fund five new mental and behavioral health crisis centers.
Members of the Metropolitan King County Council approved an ordinance Wednesday to send the measure to the April 25 ballot in a unanimous 9-0 vote.
“This proposal would make a generational investment in our behavioral health system at a time when we need it most,” said Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who co-sponsored the legislation.
If approved by voters, the levy would raise as much as $1.25 billion over nine years to fund construction of five 24/7 walk-in crisis care centers in different parts of the county to serve people with mental health and substance use disorder needs, with at least one specializing in serving youth.
Residents could visit any of the facilities, regardless of where they live in the county. The centers are intended to serve as a one-stop location for anyone who needs behavioral health help, whether they’re coming by themselves, or are brought by a family member or police.
Each center would be made up of three parts: A behavioral health urgent care clinic that offers walk-in and drop-off screening and triage, an observation unit where people could stay for up to 23 hours, and a short-term stabilization unit where people could stay for up to 14 days before being discharged or referred to other services.
Today, people experiencing an urgent mental health crisis have few options in King County, and often ending up in hospital emergency rooms or, if a crime has been alleged, in jail. Supporters of the crisis center proposal, which is based on a similar model in Arizona, say creating these walk-in facilities will fill a crucial gap in creating a holistic system to help people get into lasting, successful treatment.
Jeremiah Bainbridge, who works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter in Seattle, said in testimony before the County Council that he supports the levy. There are not enough services or behavioral health care professionals to meet the current need, he said. “These facilities are somewhere for people to go now.”
The levy, which would go into effect in 2024 and continue through 2032, would also aim to boost the number of residential beds available for people with urgent mental health needs and bolster the behavioral health workforce to serve the growing need.
As behavioral health operators have struggled to fund operations and recruit staff, the county has lost one-third of the available beds in residential facilities, said Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, in a Seattle City Council Finance and Housing Committee meeting this month. King County and Washington state officials contributed $10 million last year to purchase Cascade Hall, a 64-bed behavioral health facility near Northgate, to help offset that loss.
The proposed levy would provide funding for at least 111 more beds for mental health patients, Flor said.
The behavioral health field has also seen a drop in providers, mostly due to burnout from increased demand during the pandemic and low wages combined with steep educational debt in certain careers. Wages for behavioral health workers would be 20% more than comparable facilities, the county says, and some of the levy proceeds would go toward the cost of certification for prospective workers.
The annual proposed levy would be set at $0.145 per $1,000 of assessed value. A Seattle homeowner whose property is valued at the median of $760,000 could expect to pay about $133 in 2024. Across King County, where average home values are slightly lower than in the city, the median payment for a property owner would be about $121.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who introduced the levy last fall, said in a news release that the behavioral health crisis has shown up on streets, in jails and in communities. “By improving and investing in our behavioral health crisis system, we can also create solutions” for public safety, public health and homelessness, he said.
The first two facilities would be slated to open in 2026, and the final facility would be expected to open in 2029. However, immediate investments in supportive housing programs and money toward existing mental health facilities in King County could begin in 2024 and 2025.
“We bear the cost in our community in so many other ways for the lack of these facilities,” Flor said in reference to why King County is leading the charge. Jails, emergency rooms, homeless shelters and the involuntary treatment system “are failing under the weight of not having access to an essential component of a behavioral health crisis system.”
While urgent care facilities are available for physical health needs, there is currently no same-day, walk-in clinic for behavioral health concerns available to the public in the Seattle area, regardless of whether a person has insurance. The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center requires a referral from police, a mobile crisis team or a mental health professional.
One significant question remaining is where the crisis centers would be located: County officials have not designated specific sites, instead saying that providers under contract with DCHS would be responsible for proposing locations for the facilities, with support from the jurisdictions where they would reside.
So far, Seattle City Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Andrew Lewis are drafting a resolution to support the levy, staff said.
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