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Pierce County Votes Down Mental Health Sales Tax; Supporters Regroup

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

Pierce County lawmakers this week voted down a sales tax that would have raised an estimated $10 million for mental health and substance abuse programs.

The South Sound county will remain the only one of Washington's densely-populated counties without the 1/10 of 1 percent sales tax for mental health. Twenty-two of Washington's 39 counties have the tax, along with the city of Tacoma.

County Council members voted 4-3 in favor of the sales tax Tuesday night, but supporters needed a supermajority of five votes to charge a new tax. County officials estimated it would have cost the average resident $17 a year.

The bill's failure follows months of deliberation by county leaders and a $64,000 study that found gaps in Pierce County's mental-health system. 

Supporters say they will continue fighting for the tax. They say new revenue is necessary to address problems that increasingly fall on local government, such as rising rates of opioid abuse and homelessness in the county and a suicide rate that exceeds the state average.

"Ultimately, this is something that has to be done," said Councilmember Derek Young, a Democrat from Gig Harbor. "We cannot be the only urban county in Washington to not provide some basic behavioral health services."

Young said his fellow council members broadly acknowledged a need for better mental health care, but were reluctant to pass a new tax -- especially on top of another new sales tax that will fund the region's Sound Transit 3 plan. Pierce County voters rejected the $54 billion transit initiative this year, but it passed with support in King and Snohomish counties.

One possible way to build support for the mental health sales tax in the future, he said, would be to swap out an existing tax, such as a property tax that funds flood-control measures in Pierce County.

Council Chairman Doug Richardson was the lone Republican to vote in favor of the sales tax for mental health services. He said, if supporters try again, they could draft a detailed plan on how the money would be spent and take time explaining the plan to constituents in order to strengthen community support.

Richardson also said there are actions the county can take in the meantime, such as appointing a committee to coordinate mental health care and hiring a coordination director to "break down the walls between providers." He said those early steps could help build support for a sales tax in the future.

"Of course, we're going to have to find some money," he said.

In rejecting the sales tax, county lawmakers are likely leaving an additional $1.5 million in state funding on the table. The state extends mental health funding to counties as an incentive for passing the tax, but the offer expires in 2017.

Outgoing Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy included revenue from the sales tax in her 2017 budget. She proposed using about $1.1 million to contract with seven behavioral health "co-responders" who would work alongside sheriff's deputies to diffuse mental health crises. 

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.