King County crisis center tax leading in Tuesday’s special election

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral…

King County crisis center tax leading in Tuesday’s special election
King County crisis center tax leading in Tuesday’s special election

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

A ballot measure that would provide funding for mental and behavioral health services in King County was leading in Tuesday’s special election. 

The proposed King County Crisis Care Centers levy, which would support the construction and operation of five 24/7 walk-in crisis centers through a nine-year property tax, was the only countywide measure on the ballot Tuesday. The levy, if passed, is expected to raise $1.25 billion, increasing property taxes by a rate of 14.5 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value.

More than 54% of voters in the Tuesday night tally had voted in favor of the levy. About 45% of voters had rejected the proposal.

Nearly 295,000 ballots had been counted countywide Tuesday, representing about 21% of registered voters. Officials project voter turnout will be about 33%, which is typical for most odd-year special elections. According to the county, ballots from more than 25% of eligible voters had been received as of 8 p.m. Tuesday, and more are expected to arrive in the coming days.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement Tuesday night he was “optimistic about the early results” and appreciated voters’ support.

“The current system is inadequate for the level of need we see in our community,” Constantine said. “A county of 2.3 million people must have a functional and connected behavioral health system that provides timely, effective, compassionate mental health and substance use care, with access and quality at least equal to physical healthcare.”

Campaigning for the levy was understated. Few homes displayed yard signs and campaign events appeared minimal. Local mayors, council members and county officials, including Leo Flor, the director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, did participate in informational forums.

Many service providers and several unions representing first responders and health care workers endorsed the levy, along with large businesses, including Amazon and Microsoft.

The Ballmer Group, which funds The Seattle Times Mental Health Project, is among the organizations that contributed to the levy campaign, which raised more than $552,000. Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain full editorial control over our journalism.

Proponents argued the crisis centers would help provide a place for people to get care and help divert people from jails and emergency rooms, both of which have experienced crowding and might not provide the most appropriate support.

There is no walk-in mental health crisis facility available to the public in King County. The closest alternative, Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center, has limited capacity and requires a referral from police, a mobile crisis team or a mental health worker.

“Our voters understand that property taxes are imperfect tools to generate the revenue we need to solve pressing problems, but they understand that this is a huge need in our community, and they chose hope and they chose support for our neighbors living in crisis,” King County County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said after results were released Tuesday night. “It means we’re coming together to solve a problem, we’re coming together to give people hope, and we’re coming together to provide people a place to go when they’re in crisis so they can get the care they need to heal.”

The proposed crisis centers would operate on a “no-wrong door” policy, modeled after a system implemented in Arizona. The facilities would be available to anyone experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis, regardless of insurance status. People in need of substance use treatment could be treated on site or transferred to a detox center or rehabilitation program. 

While the levy divides the county into four regions and plans to place a crisis center in each, the facilities would be open to all residents, even those who don’t live in King County. A fifth center would serve youths. Specific locations aren’t yet known: Cities and providers are expected to partner to propose sites, which could present a future challenge if neighbors object.

The number of mental health residential beds in King County has shrunk to about 261, down from about 548 in the 1990s, by a Seattle Times estimate. If passed, the levy is expected to provide money to restore more than 100 beds, though the bulk of the proposed money is focused on short-term crisis care, rather than longer-term or preventive mental health services. 

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Finally, as the behavioral health field grapples with burnout and shrinking wages, the plan aims to attract workers to the crisis centers by paying them about 20% more than what typical behavioral health workers earn now. Some money would also go toward apprenticeship programs and the cost of credentialing prospective workers.

The ballot initiative didn’t have any organized opposition, though a statement in the voters guide argued that the levy increases the tax burden on Washington property owners. Some critics have questioned whether a county initiative, as opposed to a statewide effort or federal approach, was the best method to secure money.

Even before Tuesday’s vote, a coalition of five King County cities — Bothell, Kenmore, Kirkland, Lake Forest Park and Shoreline — announced plans to build a walk-in mental health crisis center. The facility is expected to open in Kirkland in 2024 and could serve as one of the four regional crisis centers mandated under the levy.

Dan Malone, executive director of DESC, said Tuesday night he wasn’t surprised by voters’ support.

“I think there is wide recognition in the community that the mental health system needs a lot to make it effective,” Malone said. “My optimism about it is that we will find ourselves down the road with a better way of supporting people who have these kinds of psychiatric crises and it will be better than the way we’ve addressed these kinds of problems in the past.”

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times