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Pierce County Leaders Weigh Sales Tax To Fund Mental Health Services

Courtesy of Pierce County
Pierce County leaders say a proposed sales tax would help fund behavioral health "co-responders" in the sheriff's department.

More than half of Washington's 39 counties have a special sales tax funding mental health and substance abuse programs. 

Among the state's urban counties, Pierce County is the exception. Leaders there have resisted enacting tax the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for years. 

But with homelessness and addiction on the rise, some county leaders are looking to change that.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy is asking lawmakers to enact the sales tax, estimating it will pump $6.3 million into the county's 2017 budget. She says passing the sales tax would also make the county eligible for an additional $1.5 million in state funding for mental health services.

McCarthy proposes using some of that money to contract with seven behavioral health "co-responders" to work alongside sheriff's deputies to diffuse mental health crises. Those contracts would cost an estimated $1.1 million, a county spokesperson said.

Councilmember Derek Young, a Democrat from Gig Harbor who supports the sales tax, said situations can "escalate" when law enforcement officers are asked to respond to a person "acting out in public and making people nervous." 

"The co-responders are there to try to reduce the amount of times that that situation ends in somebody going to jail or worse," he said. 

McCarthy is also calling for a "community engagement coordinator" to work with the sheriff's department and other hires to expand the county's mental health services, including a social services administrative manager, a grant coordinator, and an office assistant in the Community Connections Department.

County lawmakers plan to hold a public hearing on the sales tax  Nov. 14, shortly before a scheduled vote on the 2017 budget. Young said the council's seven members are split along party lines over the measure. Republicans have called for more details on how the sales tax revenue would be spent. 

Like other Western Washington communities, Pierce County is grappling with rising levels of homelessness and opioid addiction.

A study released last month found that Pierce County has higher rates of suicide and self-reported mental health problems than Washington as a whole. 

It also found that deaths related to heroin and other opioids have risen 32 percent in the county between 2002 and 2013.

A January "point in time" count found 1,762 people experiencing homelessness in Pierce County, a 37-percent increase from the prior year's tally.

McCarthy estimated the sales tax would bring in about $10 million a year after 2017, since the tax would go into effect partway through the year, in June. A county spokesperson said officials are exploring the best ways to use the revenue to expand services.

Tacoma, Pierce County's largest city, has already passed the sales tax to fund mental heath services. It went into effect in 2012. The city's police force has a "co-responder" program similar to the one the county is considering. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.