King County voters appear to have approved a new property tax levy to boost funding for behavioral health and establish five new crisis centers in the April 25 special election, King County Elections reports.
The new measure, Proposition No. 1, passed with 56.7 percent of the vote, with only 30.3 percent of registered voters participating as of May 2. The levy will impose an annual property tax of 14.5 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value, which will come into effect in 2024. This averages to around $120 for the median home in the county.
King County estimates that the levy will raise approximately $1.25 billion through 2032. This money will be spent on establishing the crisis care centers, increasing the amount of residential treatment beds back to 2018 levels and improving the working conditions of mental health care workers to alleviate staffing shortages.
The American Medical Association defines behavioral health as an umbrella term encompassing issues of mental health, substance use disorders, life stressors and physical symptoms caused by stress.
Between 2018 and 2022, the number of residential treatment beds in the county has decreased by nearly a third, according to King County. At the same time, residents are experiencing an escalating crisis of substance use disorder. According to Public Health – Seattle & King County, 998 people died from drug overdoses in 2022, the most ever on record.
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay told Real Change in December 2022 that there was a severe lack of available behavioral health crisis centers for the 2.2 million residents of the county. The only such currently-existing facility is run by the nonprofit organization Downtown Emergency Service Center and has capacity for 46 people, by referral from first responders only.
A strong proponent of the levy, Zahilay said that a lack of capacity throughout the region's welfare system is responsible for the devastating mortality numbers.
“The hospitals are over capacity, the emergency rooms are over capacity, the shelters are over capacity, the jails are over capacity,” Zahilay said. “The permanent supportive housing is over capacity. All of these things that we would need to respond to this crisis are filled up, and so you are seeing the consequence of that, which is people untreated, uncared for, out in the streets suffering from mental illness or substance use disorders.”
Some members of the public organized a campaign against the initiative, claiming that the tax increase was unaffordable. This group included the prolific rightwing ballot initiative sponsor Tim Eyman, who was convicted of campaign finance violations in 2021. Another group of residents opposed the initiative from the left, writing in The Stranger that it would reinforce — rather than detract from — the carceral nature of Washington’s mental health system.
Election results will be certified on May 5.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the May 3-9, 2023 issue.