By Pat Jenkins The Dispatch A minority of Pierce County Council members have blocked an attempt to pay for mental-health services by raising the countywide sales tax. Four of the seven council members voted Dec. 13 to authorize the tax hike, but the three others who voted against it kept it from being approved. A "supermajority" of five votes was needed to enact the one-tenth of 1 percent increase. Pierce County would have become one of 23 counties in Washington that collect the portion of sales tax earmarked for behavioral health programs. Instead, Pierce remains the only urban county without the designated tax revenue. Officials estimated that the tax increase in Pierce County would have cost each person about $17 per year and generated approximately $11 million per year in proceeds. Earlier this year, the council commissioned a consulting firm, Human Services Research Institute (HSRI), to study those needs and report back on any gaps in services and what the county should do about them. HSRI's findings, released in September, included: • An estimated 19 percent of Pierce County adults (about 123,130 people) meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. Of those, about 29,046 have a serious mental illness, which is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as a diagnosed behavioral or emotional disorder that significantly impacts day-to-day functioning. • An estimated 11 percent of children 12 to 17 years old experienced major depression in the past year. That's higher than the national average of 10 percent. • Training and support for first-responders to place mentally-ill individuals in treatment rather than to jail. The latter is often where they wind up in the absence of behavioral health services. With the latter in short supply, some people go to hospital emergency rooms, where about 8 percent of visits in Pierce County are related to a behavioral health need. • High levels of outpatient and community-based service for behavioral health is needed. In some cases, more outreach and education is necessary for mentally ill persons who refuse help or don't know it's available. Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, a leading proponent of more mental-health services and tax-based funding to pay for them, has said the county must "stop ignoring this problem and blaming others for not stepping up. It is all of our responsibility to care for those who are least able to care for themselves." Ladenburg was joined by council members Rick Talbert, Derek Young and Doug Richardson in voting for the tax hike. Jim McCune, whose district covers south Pierce County, Joyce McDonald and Dan Roach voted against it. Afterward, it was unclear what the council will do next about the mental health issue, including if the proposal will be tried again in 2017. The rejection this month of using sales tax collections to fund behavioral health programs was the second time for the council. A proposal in 2014 also was turned down.
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