Politics & Government

Unexpected rejection of Pierce mental health tax leaves supporters reeling

Proponents of a countywide sales tax increase to fund mental health and chemical dependency programs were disappointed but not deterred Wednesday, a day after the Pierce County Council unexpectedly rejected the tax by one vote.

“I’m evaluating and will be talking to other council members about reintroducing this in a little bit different form,” Tacoma Democrat Connie Ladenburg said.

Ladenburg and the council’s other Democrats, Derek Young and Rick Talbert, sponsored the ordinance calling for the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase. It would have generated more than $10 million in 2017.

Young said Wednesday he was “willing to explore some out-of-the-box ideas” to address the growing problem of homelessness and rising costs in the jail and emergency rooms that serve as de facto mental health treatment centers.

“The problem doesn’t go away,” the Gig Harbor Democrat said. “This is still a responsibility that we have to provide. I am determined to get there eventually. It’s just going to be a question of what is that going to take.”

Council Chairman Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, agreed the issue would remain a priority in 2017.

He anticipated discussing how to proceed during a council retreat in February.

Richardson would like to see the council form a behavioral health committee in 2017 and hire a director to oversee it, assuming funding can be found in the budget, he said.

“I think it’s premature to immediately create another ordinance,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too early to create another plan.”

Richardson joined the Democrats in voting in favor of the increase.

Republicans Dan Roach of Bonney Lake, Jim McCune of Graham and Joyce McDonald of Puyallup voted against it.

All eyes were on McDonald on Tuesday night. The tax increase needed a supermajority of five votes to pass, and she was viewed as the pivotal vote.

McDonald recently had given signs she would not oppose the tax increase. She spoke favorably about facets of the implementation plan at meetings, and last month, she discouraged a fellow council member from amending the budget to earmark $200,000 for a private behavioral health hospital proposed for Tacoma.

“Joyce McDonald said to me, we don’t need to do that in this budget, we’ll address it in the mental health tax,” said Ladenburg, who proposed the amendment. “She led us on and then let us down.”

At Tuesday’s meeting in the Lakewood City Hall, McDonald said she wanted voters to have a chance to weigh in. But county staff advised the council that state law does not allow it to delegate the decision to voters.

McDonald said it broke her heart to vote no.

“Right now is a bad time,” she said, referencing tax increases tied to the $54 billion Sound Transit package that voters approved last month to expand light rail through the region. “Maybe it would have been better if we had been able to get to this way before the election.”

McDonald declined to answer a reporter’s questions following Tuesday’s vote and did not return a phone call Wednesday.

Young called McDonald’s comments about timing “frustrating.”

“It’s tough to stomach because we did fight hard to try to get to this earlier,” he said.

Democrats wanted to vote on the tax before the Nov. 8 election, but that didn’t happen because Richardson proposed a lengthy public comment process.

“There was no intent on my part to make this a political issue by trying to rush a vote before the election,” Richardson said by phone Wednesday. “That wouldn’t have accomplished what I was trying to do, which was ‘What is the plan?’ 

The County Council held three public meetings in October, including one at Pacific Lutheran University that more than 200 people attended.

At every meeting, the overwhelming majority of people who spoke urged the council to approve the sales tax increase.

But since then, a new critic had emerged: Gig Harbor resident and government watchdog Jerry Gibbs. He told the council Tuesday that it should wait to see the economic impacts of the Sound Transit taxes before deciding to add another tax increase.

McCune and Roach gave other reasons for voting against the tax. McCune said he believes the county’s budget already has the money needed to address the mental health and substance abuse problems in unincorporated Pierce County.

Cities should find their own funding because they are the “richest part of the county,” he said.

Cities can find their own money by passing the tax “if they have the will,” he said.

Tacoma already collects the tax. The only other cities in Pierce County that could are Lakewood, Puyallup and University Place, under the state law that allows cities of more than 30,000 people to impose the tax if the county where they are located hasn’t already.

Pierce County is the only urban county in the state that hasn’t approved the mental health tax increase since the Legislature granted the authority 10 years ago.

The other no vote, Roach, said his constituents don’t support tax increases.

“Nobody in Tacoma voted for me. No one in Lakewood voted for me. No one in Puyallup voted for me,” Roach said. “People in the 1st District voted for me. And people in the 1st District have been very specific about taxes.”

The mental health tax proposal had a long path to its rejection Tuesday. It took most of 2015 to get the council to approve a $64,000 behavioral health study aimed at pinpointing where the mental health system doesn’t work and where improvements could be made.

At the time it was commissioned, the study was seen as a step toward eventually adopting the countywide mental health tax.

When the study was proposed at the start of 2015, Young said McDonald “tried to stop the study from ever happening.”

She was adamant the state should cover mental health needs, not the county.

McDonald was elected last month to the Legislature. She said Tuesday she would tackle the issue from her new position in Olympia.

Ladenburg and Richardson lamented that the county will lose $1.5 million in state funding by denying the tax increase.

The Legislature promised the money if the council approved the sales tax increase before July 1, 2017.

“People who will not vote for this tonight will throw away $1.5 million,” Ladenburg said Tuesday. “I have to ask, is that being responsible for our citizens?”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley