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Tax increase to pay for mental health services? Pierce County Council considers it again

News Tribune - 2/20/2020

Feb. 20--For the second time in four years, the Pierce County Council will consider a proposal to raise the sales tax to collect money for behavioral health services.

The tax would increase the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent, or a penny for every 10 dollars spent.

The County Council's human services committee pushed the bill forward Tuesday, scheduling a vote by full County Council on March 10. Because it is a tax increase, the council would need a supermajority of five out of seven votes to implement it.

The tax would add funding for behavioral health education, early intervention and prevention. This is the second attempt to pass a behavioral tax in Pierce County. In 2005, the state granted counties the authority to increase sales tax for new mental health, chemical dependency, or therapeutic court services. The tax can only be approved by elected officials, not at the ballot box.

The council fell a vote shy four years ago in the eleventh hour. Of Washington's 39 counties, 24 have passed a one-tenth of 1 percent tax increase for behavioral health services.

A Pierce County Behavioral Health System Study report identified significant behavioral health-related needs across the county. The system shows gaps between community need and available resources.

Bill sponsor, council member Connie Ladenburg, said the funding would fill gaps throughout the system for those with substance abuse or mental health concerns.

The legislation also looks to create a committee of service providers, advocates, emergency responders and hospitals to oversee the funds and how best to spend the money.

The Council

Dave Morell is regarded as a swing vote when the measure comes before the full County Counicl. Morell warned his colleagues during Tuesday's committee meeting that he needed more time with the proposal before deciding how to vote.

"I understand other members, they want to move forward. But understand, it takes five votes to pass this," he said.

Council member Pam Roach told The News Tribune on Wednesday she will not vote for the tax increase because she doesn't believe it brings anything to the table regarding homelessness in Pierce County.

"I asked what it would do with homelessness, and I wasn't satisfied with the answered," Roach said. "They want the medicine for the problem, but they don't want to cure the disease."

Council member Jim McCune did not respond for comment, but bill sponsor Derek Young said, "Jim has been crystal clear he doesn't support the behavioral health tax."

Morell said he felt the bill was written in a "manipulative" way that "tugged at the heartstrings." Of the 15 clauses to show intent of the council, 12 include statistics that show a lack of funding for support services.

The District 1 council member said he understands the continuum of care is lacking in Pierce County, but he feels the state has shirked its responsibility.

Morell proposed an amendment -- that passed -- to add a two-and-a-half-year sunset clause. Morell said adding a stop date would ensure the tax helps put the county in the right direction and increases a sense of urgency to be effective.

The bill's sponsors, Democratic council members Ladenburg, Young and Marty Campbell, all voiced frustration at the lack of county resources to help fund behavioral health and substance abuse services.

Ladenburg said the time to act is now.

Young called it shameful that Pierce County is surrounded by counties where services are more readily available because of the tax.

Campbell was on the Tacoma City Council when the city passed it because the county could not.

"It's shocked me that we're still here a decade later, and the county still hasn't passed it," he said on the dais.

Chairman Doug Richardson, who voted for the tax in 2016, said he felt more time on the bill could be spent in committee, providing the public a chance to see council members discuss the tax increase in public.

The community rallies

For more than an hour and a half, service providers, survivors, healthcare professionals, educators, and judges urged council members to adopt the tax.

Garold Johnson, a judge with Pierce County Superior Court, told the committee felony drug court and felony mental health court needed the funds that a behavioral health tax would provide.

We need the proper funding to get this done," Johnson said. "It's a state problem, it's a county problem, but ultimately, it's a human problem."

Corey Hatfield, a physician assistant with Community Health Care, said there are not enough resources to meet the need across the county.

Wanda Rochelle, operations director for nonprofit Safe Streets, said staff doesn't have an answer when clients ask for substance abuse or mental health support services.

Carol Mitchell, the former Senior Counsel for Justice Services told the council her granddaughter had to be taken to Skagit County for a bed at a mental health facility. Traveling to Skagit County from Frederickson mid-week to visit her granddaughter was difficult.

"We have to do something," Mitchell said.


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