Mental health sales tax: Tell Tacoma what it’s buying
The Tacoma City Council is moving quietly and quickly toward an increase in the city’s sales tax. It ought to be moving noisily and slowly.
The tenth-of-a-percent tax, which the council could enact Tuesday, is expected to bring in $2.6 million in 2013 and rising amounts thereafter.
It wouldn’t be a lot at the checkout counter – just a penny on a $10 purchase. Its intentions are good: preserving or expanding programs that improve mental health and reduce addiction. But it is a tax, and it needs more public discussion than it’s gotten so far.
One concern is that the council has no clear plan for spending much of the money. Instead of first identifying priorities, then collecting the tax, city officials want to get the tax on the books ASAP. Then they will launch a process to decide how it gets spent.
The haste is driven by desperation. Past councils and administrations have saddled the city with a scary revenue shortfall that threatens deep cuts to police and fire protection, and other vital public services. City funding for human services – homelessness and mental health programs among them – is endangered.
Half of the new tax – $1.3 million a year – could be used initially to replace existing funding for such programs. If the council moves quickly enough – by the end of March – it could start collecting the money this July.
Hence the rush. If the schedule slips past this month, collections would slip to October.
But when the City of Tacoma moves to adopt a new tax, it owes the public a genuine accounting.
Tacoma officials could start by laying out what they’re doing to curb spending, now and in the future, so the city doesn’t wind up in a fix like this again.
They should also give the taxpayers a clearer idea of what – beyond existing programs – they might be getting for their money.
“Mental health programs” is an elastic term. It obviously includes case management and psychiatric treatment. But it can include just about any service that intersects a population with a high incidence of mental illness or addiction.
Methamphetamine intervention qualifies. So does housing for alcoholics. So do efforts against domestic violence. So do drug courts and mental health courts that handle defendants with psychiatric and addiction problems.
The wish list is very long, and nearly everything on it serves some worthy purpose. But not everything is equally cost-effective, and some of these programs have political backers who fight ferociously to connect them to pipelines of public funding.
The City Council appears inclined to have Tacomans hand over their debit cards before they see what’s in the cart. Let’s at least see the shopping list. If that requires bumping the tax into October, so be it.