County exec: 'Status quo isn't good enough'
Friday, March 31, 2017 11:12 AM
By Pat Jenkins
Pierce County must "take on our toughest challenges," says County Executive Bruce Dammeier, who is three months into the job voters gave him.
Three months into his new job, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier sees a smoother-running county government and lots of room for improvement in the local economy, care for the mentally ill, and reducing homelessness.
Dammeier, who took office in January after his election last November, delivered his first state of the county speech March 18 in a courtroom in Tacoma packed with citizens and government officials, including the County Council. The latter’s members included Rick Talbert and Dan Roach, who Dammeier defeated in the general and primary election races for executive, respectively.
The audience heard Dammeier describe many of the same challenges he outlined during last year’s campaign. The solutions, he said, will come from a non-partisan approach to problem-solving.
“We must be willing to take on our toughest challenges. The status quo isn’t good enough” now or for future residents of the county, Dammeier said. The Republican added that his hiring of Dan Grimm, a Democrat and former state treasurer, to be his top assistant demonstrates how governing should be done without regard for political party affiliation.
On the theme of government efficiency, Dammeier said his administration is reorganizing county agencies to improve service and save money. He has proposed consolidating the Planning and Land Services Department and the Public Works Department to make it easier for landowners and developers to get land-use and construction permits “without compromising standards.” Collaborations between the county and cities and agencies such as the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department can also bring improved service to the public, Dammeier contended.
The county should be a leader in reducing “headaches and red tape” in government interactions with the public, he said.
County government can also be more transparent and accessible to citizens by taking advantage of technology with a new county website that will be easier to access from multiple mobile devices and allow information to be submitted and monitored easily, Dammeier said.
Moving to the economy, Dammeier said it’s improving and modest job growth is expected. He noted the pursuit of businesses that can increase employment here and regionally should be balanced with environmental concerns.
“We can’t have one without the other,” he said.
While optimistic about the county’s future (“We’re all moving in the right direction”), Dammeier said “there are problems.” He singled out unemployment, which he said is too high, mental health services that need to improve, and homelessness, particularly among children. He said a $10.7 million supplemental budget that he formally proposed to the County Council after his speech focuses on providing resources to address homelessness and behavioral health issues, as well as economic development efforts and hiring more personnel for the Sheriff Department.
To alleviate a crying need for more capacity for the behavioral health system, “Pierce County should not and can not carry the burden for the entire region’s needs,” Dammeier said. “But we can help lead the establishment of mobile crisis prevention teams --mental health first-responders” -- that can quickly respond to behavioral crises faced by families and communities.
He said the county should also take two other steps on behalf of the mental healthcare system: Build a 16-bed, short-stay diversion center for patients in transitional phases of treatment, and contribute $500,000 toward the construction of a 120-bed behavioral health hospital in Tacoma. The latter is a joint project of MultiCare Health System and CHI Franciscan Health, which are seeking public funding for part of the project’s cost.
To combat homelessness, which is tied to mental health issues, the county should work with landlords on renting homes to the mentally ill and also should put $750,000 into a plan for housing homeless military veterans at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting. The money would be spent on refurbishing existing buildings to create space for the homeless vets.
“We need to help these people,” said Dammeier, who is a Navy veteran.
Dammeier, a former state senator who lives in Puyallup, is the first non-Tacoma resident to serve as county executive and the second Republican elected to the post since it was created in 1982 in the county’s switch to a home-rule charter form of government. Instead of running for re-election to the Senate last year, he opted to go for county executive in his first bid for a county office.
A week after his state of the county address, Dammeier reported that the Senate’s proposed new operating budget for the state contains funding for several of the priorities he stressed in his speech.
The budget proposals include funding to build and operate a diversion center for Pierce County, which Dammeier considers a less expensive and more effective alternative than jail or hospital emergency-room visits for persons dealing with mental health or substance abuse problems.
The state funds would be an addition to a proposed $3 million over the two-year state budget cycle for recovery resources statewide for those dealing with behavioral health issues.
“I’m very pleased to see the Senate proposing a strong partnership with the county as we strengthen our behavioral health system,” Dammeier saidi last week.