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EDITORIAL: Here comes mental health tax 2.0 - Pierce County must pass it, stop leaning on Tacoma

News Tribune - 2/5/2020

Feb. 5--More than three years ago, Pierce County leaders blew a big chance to catch up with every other urban county in Western Washington when they failed to pass a penny-per-$10 sales-tax increase for mental health and chemical dependency services.

The most surprising part wasn't the razor-thin margin in a cliffhanger vote by the seven-member Pierce County Council in December 2016. What's most amazing is how long it's taken Democrats to bring it back for a second try.

Thank goodness version 2.0 has finally arrived. The need for preventive care and treatment is at least as acute now as it was then. Meanwhile, Tacoma has shouldered a disproportionate share of the local burden; it's the only Washington city with a behavioral health tax, stepping in where county leaders have stumbled.

Next week, council members will begin sizing up the one-tenth-of-1-percent sales-tax proposal at the Feb. 10Rules and Operations Committee. Public testimony will be taken Feb. 18 at the Human Services Committee meeting and again March 10 in front of the full County Council.

Leading the charge are Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, and Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor. They were on the losing end of the 2016 vote, despite being part of a 4-3 majority; Pierce County's undemocratic supermajority rule requires a fifth vote to raise taxes.

Term limits will force Ladenburg from office at the end of 2020, and Young also foresees the window of opportunity may be closing.

While the tax would help people of all ages, proponents are reaching for the heartstrings by focusing on children in distress. For instance:

-- Emergency room visits for kids diagnosed with a behavioral health disorder jumped by 400 percent over the last four years at Tacoma'sMary Bridge Children's Hospital.

-- Youth aged 12 to 17 in Pierce County are less likely to be treated for a diagnosed substance-abuse condition than any other region of the state.

-- The rate of local 8th, 10th and 12th graders who considered suicide, made a suicide plan or attempted suicide exceeded the state average in all three categories, according to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey.

"What's really come to my attention is the number of kids with behavioral health problems," Ladenburg told our Editorial Board Monday. "The earlier they're addressed in life, the better off they'll be later in life."

No doubt about that. The trick is pinning down at least one of two Republicans new to the council since 2016: Pam Roach of Sumner and Dave Morell of South Hill.

Both are deeply engaged in the interconnected issues of mental health, addiction and homelessness. How refreshing it would be if both were to vote for a tax that 24 Washington counties -- east and west, rural and urban, red and blue -- have adopted. In October, the all-Republican Yakima County Commission unanimously went for the tax.

We trust Council Chair Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, will vote "yes" since he did in 2016. And Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier would set a positive tone for fellow Republicans by lending his support.

Yes, there's been progress on the local front since 2016, such as the (grindingly slow) opening of Wellfound psychiatric hospital in Tacoma. What's missing is a continuum of care that goes beyond inpatient beds and crisis management -- a safety net of prevention, early intervention and recovery stretching from the Mount Rainier foothills to the Key Peninsula.

Approving the tax is advisable not only for reasons of compassion; Young points out that its benefits would be measurable in bottom-line metrics: fewer hospitalizations, incarcerations and 911 call center inundation.

The estimated $13 million in annual revenue won't fill every gap, won't save every hurting soul, but it's the only lifeline within reach of county leaders. This time, they must grab hold of it -- partisan posturing and election-year timidity be damned.

"Success does not consist in never making mistakes," playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed, "but in never making the same one a second time."

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