The vote for behavioral health funding

It has been a week since the Pierce County Council failed to pass an ordinance to help fund services for behavior health. Now that my anger and frustration have settled, I am able to share with you some of my thoughts that I expressed the night of the vote.

In 2005, the State Legislature authorized Counties’ legislative authority to pass a one tenth of 1% on sales and use tax to fund behavior health and therapeutic courts. If the tax would have passed last week, we would have realized about $13.1 million annually for Pierce County.

Twenty-five jurisdictions have passed this tax in our State, every county this side of the Cascades, both big and small, Republican and Democratic led. Their leaders saw the need, acknowledged the ability to raise resources to address the need and acted on it.

The Pierce County Council attempted in 2016 to pass the one tenth of 1% tax for behavioral health and it failed on a vote of 4 in favor and 3 against. While that is a majority, Pierce County requires a super majority to pass a tax.  So, in the only county in the State that requires a super majority, it failed.

Since then, the problem has only increased, and I have been working on this with other people to re-introduce it. The support for the behavioral health funds is broad and deep. We had the support of all the police chiefs in the County. In addition, Bethel, Eatonville, Fife, Peninsula, Sumner-Bonney Lake, University Place, and Tacoma school districts expressed the need for the funds to help their students.

One of our Superior Court judges wrote on behalf of treatment providers, attorneys, social workers, guardian ad litem, child advocates, law enforcement officers, judicial officers, and other stakeholders that work with and for our therapeutic courts and communicated the need to enhance the funding to ensure continued success. Primary service providers such as Mary Bridge Behavioral Health unit, St. Joseph, CHI-Franciscan, Catholic Community Services, Comprehensive Life Resources, Hope Sparks, Pierce County Anti-trafficking Network, YWCA, Rebuilding Together of South Sound, Medical Reserve Corps and others shared the work they do and their support for the tax. The Council Chambers were full and nearly everyone in attendance testified. Only one person spoke against the tax. We also received numerous emails with overwhelming support.

The ordinance is well thought out with input from the Human Services Research Institute (HSRI) study. The HSRI study was commissioned by the Council to evaluate the behavior health system in Pierce County, behavior health providers, community providers, members of the justice system and community members. It has broad support from multiple sectors: law enforcement, justice sector, education, human services providers, and numerous community members. The study has a plan of action from a development framework, to policy statements, to oversight, to access provisions, to geographic equity, to accountability. It proposes to form a committee to develop a plan, a timeline and report back language.  And we have the statistics that prove that we have a need for additional funding. In fact, incidences of behavior health conditions are increasing especially in our youth populations.

But none of this was enough to gain the supermajority needed to pass the tax. The ordinance was postponed to a date to be determined. The Council has to have a majority to bring it back to us later – we don’t know when or if that will happen.

Instead of focusing on my anger and frustration, I am hoping that there is a light in this dark tunnel. Councilmember Dave Morrel introduced a resolution for a plan to be developed and returned to us by October 1, 2020. He tasked a newly formed committee, Regional System of Care Committee to develop the plan. Sound familiar? (Note the bolded language above.) The difference is he wants it done before we pass the tax. His timeline delays collection for one year, losing millions of dollars that could fund our behavioral health system.

The light at the end of this tunnel is that, once a plan is delivered, there will be support for this tax. So, I have a little hope. I just have to believe that the Council will finally do what good leaders do and that is to lead and shape a future where everyone is cared for, even our most vulnerable.