This week, Hamilton County commissioners are expected to vote to determine if three tax levy renewals will appear on the November ballot.
One of those levies, a measure to fund mental health services, includes an increase – potentially generating almost $45 million annually, compared with $36.5 million at the current millage rate.
We encourage the three-person commission – Denise Driehaus, Stephanie Summerow Dumas and Alicia Reece – to greenlight the levy so it goes before the voters.
The need for mental health services is great
To put it bluntly, we are facing a mental health crisis, one that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As reported by The Enquirer’s Terry DeMio, a survey at the end of 2021 of 26,260 seventh- through 12th-grade students in Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties showed that more than half (53.3%) reported high levels of stress. One in 10 said they have suicidal thoughts. And 60% struggle to pull themselves out of a bad mood.
Overdose deaths among teens and young adults escalated in 2020 and 2021. Southwest Ohio saw a 37% rise from 2019 to 2020 in the deaths of those 15 to 24 years old, Ohio Department of Health records show.
Hamilton County’s Mental Health and Recovery Services Board does not provide direct care; rather, it provides funding and coordinates services from partnering mental health providers for adults and children who are mentally disabled and/or addicted to alcohol and drugs.
An independent analysis of the agency determined the number of residents in need of mental health care will continue to rise, while the number of caregivers is expected to drop due to low compensation and burnout.
Funding has not kept pace with inflation
The current rate of 2.99 mills (costing a property owner $40.93 annually per $100,000 in home value) has been in place since 2008. Based on the Consumer Price Index, the value of a 2008 dollar is expected to be 57 cents in 2027. Without the levy increase, the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board warned it won’t be able to maintain its current level of service, let alone respond to the anticipated increase in the number of people seeking help.
In addition to being endorsed by the citizen-led Tax Levy Review Committeethe levy renewal and increase unsurprisingly has community support. At the July 28 county commission meeting, more than 40 people spoke in favor of the levy, many sharing personal stories of how they or family members benefited from services obtained through the county. It is not insignificant that there is no organized opposition to the levy.
The agency has a good track record
The Tax Review Committee hired a consultant, Health Management Associates, to do an in-depth analysis of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. It found the agency operates efficiently and has built solid relationships with providers. Overall, clients that were surveyed reported satisfaction with the services they received.
Last month, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (now the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline) moved from a 10-digit phone number to a three-digit call and text hotline. Individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts or dealing with mental health issues can now dial or text 988 – a number meant to become as widely recognized as 911, the number used to obtain emergency police or medical help. Although it’s not clear what the local impact will be, proponents of the levy say it will help make sure the county is prepared for an expected increase in the number of people who seek help though the hotline.
Also a concern: Individuals who sought assistance for hardships caused by the pandemic may no longer be eligible for services under Medicaid after a federal COVID-19 relief program expires in September. Levy organizers say local governments need to be prepared to fill that expected void.
The bottom line
Tax increases are never popular. But it’s a moral imperative that we prioritize funding for mental health, even if that means county leaders need to find other cuts to reduce the burden on property owners.
The proposed tax levy is far from frivolous; in fact, when you factor in inflation, it still falls below what the levy funded when it was approved by voters in 2007.
We also can say with confidence that Hamilton County’s Mental Health and Recovery Services Board is anything but a bloated bureaucracy. With roughly 24 full-time employees, it’s lean compared with mental health boards in Cuyahoga County (53) and Franklin County (55).
And finally, we need to understand that for too long we’ve allowed law enforcement agencies and the court system to fill the gaps when mental health services are underfunded and overburdened. The safety net provided by the Mental Health Recovery Services Board is a more cost-effective and humane way to treat those in need than relying on the criminal justice system.
We urge the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners to send a clear message of its priorities with a unanimous vote to put the mental health services levy on the ballot in November.
Enquirer Executive Editor Beryl Love wrote this editorial on behalf of The Enquirer’s editorial board, which includes Opinion and Engagement Editor Kevin Aldridge, Senior News Director of Content Jackie Borchardt, and community board members Jackie Congedo, Mack Mariani and Rachel Citak.