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Pierce County Council says equity should play role in how it distributes services, resources

Courtesy of Pierce County
County City Building

In Pierce County, someone living in one ZIP code can live up to six years longer than someone living less than a mile away. That’s according to data from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. 

The Pierce County Council is taking steps to address inequities like that by changing the way the elected body evaluates policy. A pair of resolutions approved unanimously on Tuesday aim to create a comprehensive strategy for more equitable distribution of services and resources countywide.

The plan directs the county executive to create a new tool that will provide council members a breakdown of equity impacts for any given proposal, as well as creation of a civilian Equity Review Committee. 

“It should overhaul everything we do,” Councilmember Ryan Mello told KNKX Public Radio. “We’re going to take this very seriously.” 

Mello said the plan is modeled after similar efforts by the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. 

Specifically, the health department completed a report in 2015 that looked at health outcomes, population groups and root causes in Pierce County. The findings served as a foundation for equity mapping that details health disparities among communities countywide. Some neighborhoods with the poorest outcomes, so-called “communities of focus,” include Parkland and Key Peninsula. 

“We’re getting data in a way that we haven’t before. It really is a new way of governing,” Councilmember Marty Campbell told KNKX. “This is very important because we need to make sure we are taking care of everyone across our county.”  

Campbell said Tuesday’s action on the “people-first policy” was long overdue. It’s something he’s been working on since he joined the council in 2019. 

Mello says inequities in health outcomes are directly related to policy decisions made by the County Council. Something as seemingly simple as distribution of funds for sidewalks can directly affect outcomes for kids, who are at higher risk of getting hit by cars when walking to school if their neighborhoods are less walkable. 

“If we keep doing the same old thing we’re going to keep getting the same results and get different outcomes for different people,” Mello said, stressing the need to improve outcomes for communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

The proposals approved Tuesday call upon County Executive Bruce Dammeier to create a list of indicators for evaluating any future legislation through an equity lens. Those indicators could include issues of access (to healthy food and high-speed internet, for example) or economy and livability (median home value and average household income). The draft list included in the resolution lists nearly 30 indicators. It will be up to the executive whether any or all of those are included in the final list, which he will send to the Equity Review Committee for consideration. 

Much like proposed legislation is accompanied by a fiscal note detailing the financial impacts of a proposal, these indicators would comprise an “equity note” for proposals that come across the council’s desk. The goal is for this tool to be in place by next summer. 

“Any policy that we make, our actions have intended consequences and unintended consequences,” Councilmember Dave Morell told KNKX. “We need to continually work on the unintended consequences.”  

Morell, a Republican, sponsored the legislation along with his Democratic colleagues Mello and Campbell because he said equity shouldn’t be a partisan issue. He said it builds on the work he did with his fellow Republicans last year, before several of them vacated their seats on the council.  

“It was a reflection on some of the social issues that were happening at the time,” Morell said. “We wanted to make sure as a county that we didn’t have some of those systemic issues that people were accusing us of.”

Morell was referring to racial justice protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and locally the police killing of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma. In the aftermath of those high-profile cases of police using deadly force, the county launched a review of its criminal justice services.

A committee helmed by retired Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson issued broad recommendations for addressing systemic racism. That list included calling on the council to immediately create a policy for diversity, equity and inclusion to “codify its commitment to this initiative and to express the importance of these beliefs and values at the highest level of county government.”

Tuesday’s vote did just that, Mello said. In addition to laying out a strategy for improving equity in policymaking, the new legislation also aims to make Pierce County more culturally competent for its diverse residents and employees. Mello said the Equity Review Committee will be tasked with helping guide the council on how best to do that through recommendations that will be crafted over the next year. 

The goal is making sure this comprehensive effort translates to good government that works for everyone, Mello said, no matter where a person lives. 

“Success looks like people’s income and their race not dictating their life expectancy and not dictating their prosperity,” he said. “It’s really that simple.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.