King County and Seattle-area officials plan to ask voters for a new property tax levy to fund mental and behavioral health, potentially raising as much as $1.25 billion over nearly a decade to fund construction of five regional crisis care centers and more services to strengthen the county’s ailing mental health system.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, along with Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall and other local officials, announced Monday they intend to bring the tax proposal to voters on the April 2023 ballot.
“The behavioral health system in this state has long been underfunded and underappreciated,” Constantine said. “Now, we can chart a path forward as a region — to create places where people can receive the effective care they need and begin their journey to recovery.”
The tax levy would go into effect in 2024, and would cost the median-value homeowner an estimated $121 that year, and continue through 2032, according to officials.
The county currently does not have a walk-in mental health crisis facility readily available to the public. Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center is the closest alternative but requires a referral from police, mobile crisis team or mental health professional — and with 46 beds, has limited capacity.
“If you break a bone in King County, you can walk in and get urgent care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use disorder crisis, you have zero urgent care options for a population of 2.3 million people,” said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay during the conference.
“This is why we see so many of our brothers and sisters, our family members, our neighbors out suffering outdoors, with mental health crisis or feeding their addictions at bus stops or cycling between emergency rooms and jails and homelessness. It’s because there’s nowhere for people to go.”
Officials did not share specifics about where the new crisis facilities would be but said they would be “distributed geographically across the county,” with one facility specifically for youth in crisis.
In North King County, the cities of Bothell, Kenmore, Kirkland, Shoreline and Lake Forest Park are already working together to build one crisis stabilization facility in their region. The project has $10 million committed already from a state grant with more money potentially coming in from the county’s proposed budget.
The tax proposal also calls for maintaining and investing in residential treatment beds at long-term facilities that provide youth and adults with addiction and mental health treatment. King County has steadily lost residential beds since 2018, and now only 244 remain. Earlier this month county officials purchased Cascade Hall, one such center in Northgate, to keep it from shutting down.
The plan also focuses on increasing the behavioral health workforce by increasing wages and supporting apprenticeship programs to recruit new workers. This comes as health care workers are leaving the industry, citing pandemic burnout, low morale and wages that don’t keep up with the cost of living.
“We’re providing essential public services but have been treated like, because our work is caring for the most marginalized, we deserve whatever’s left over to pay us,” said Kristen Badin, a crisis counselor with Sound and an SEIU 1199NW member, during the conference.
While the proposed crisis facilities are being built, officials said mobile or site-based crisis services could operate and provide care until the centers open. Currently King County has three crisis-responder models siloed among three departments: a mobile crisis team out of DESC, a co-responder patrol with the Seattle Police Department and Health One with Seattle Fire.
Currently, King County also relies on funding from the MIDD Behavioral Health Sales Tax Fund, established in 2008, that collects a sales tax of less than half a percent to fund dozens of behavioral health programs like mental health court, school-based screenings, mental health first aid trainings, and more. In 2021, MIDD funding contributed $64 million and served nearly 18,907 people, according to county data.
More mental health investments will be announced as part of Constantine’s biennial budget Tuesday as it heads to the Metropolitan King County Council.