There are so many things I like about this job.
Getting a chance to write three times a week in the newspaper I grew up reading is an honor and a privilege. Getting the opportunity to tell people’s stories and inspire discussions about important topics in our community feels consequential. I don’t take it lightly.
Getting occasionally spotted at the Original Pancake House by a keen reader who recognizes me from the goofy photo that accompanies this column, if I’m being honest, strokes my silly little ego. Plus, my kids think it’s cool.
Also, they pay me.
But there are a few things about this gig that I’m not wild about, like anonymous, expletive-laden voice mails left at 2:30 a.m.
Or, for that matter, the task at hand last Wednesday night.
While it’s not required, the public nature of this job occasionally means that I get asked to host or moderate an event like Wednesday’s Health and Housing Stability candidate forum, presented by the Tacoma-Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium and the Pierce County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Now, if you’ve read my column with any regularity, you know increasing Pierce County’s lagging stock of affordable housing and addressing the county’s well-documented behavioral health shortcomings are topics I feel strongly about.
Still, that doesn’t mean I enjoy doing these things. I prefer sitting behind a keyboard to being on stage. Microphones make me nervous, and I can never quite figure out what to do with my hands.
However, a funny thing happened during last week’s forum. With seven of the county’s eight candidates for County Council captive on stage – current District 3 representative Jim McCune was notably absent – it occurred to me that I had an important opportunity:
The chance to ask each candidate, very directly, whether they support a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health in Pierce County.
We’re in a crisis. I think anyone that says we need to have a plan first is not looking out their window and seeing what is on our streets every single day and has been for a number of years. … We did this study, we got recommendations from this study, and so we know what kinds of things need to be done.
Currently, the County Council is scheduled to take up the tax in committee in mid-November. But there’s no final vote scheduled, and the bill’s sponsor — Councilman Derek Young — tells me it could get postponed until January, depending on the outcome of this year’s election.
That makes the mental health tax question particularly important.
Here’s what the candidates had to say:
Linda Farmer, candidate for District 6: “Yes I do (support a mental health sales tax). … We are spending money in the most expensive, least effective way right now. … We will actually be saving money if we move to this (tax).”
Doug Richardson, incumbent in District 6: “I think I’ve been pretty consistent, from the perspective that I’m not opposed to the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax. The key to me is that you have to be able to tell folks who are going to be contributing … what they can expect as a result of that.”
Kit Burns, candidate for District 4: “I do favor the tax, and I will vote yes for it. I would also make sure that there’s a plan in advance. … I think a plan needs to involve the community. … It’s not just voting yes for it and then figuring out a plan later.”
Connie Ladenburg, incumbent in District 4: “Yes, I would definitely support this and vote for it. We’re in a crisis. I think anyone that says we need to have a plan first is not looking out their window and seeing what is on our streets every single day and has been for a number of years. … We did this study, we got recommendations from this study, and so we know what kinds of things need to be done.”
Dennis Townsend, candidate for District 3: “The short answer is yes. That’s the what. The more important (question) is how? … There a lot of different things that could happen, but yes, I would support it because we do have an issue.”
Pam Roach, candidate for District 2: “Well, I think I’m open to just about anything, but one thing — and that’s moving forward with a tax before you have a plan. … We need to know what we’re voting for before we vote on anything.”
I think I’m open to just about anything, but one thing — and that’s moving forward with a tax before you have a plan. … We need to know what we’re voting for before we vote on anything.
Carolyn Edmonds, candidate for District 2: “I do support the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax. This has been a taxing authority available to us for over 10 years now. So we have service providers, agencies, medical experts, health care professionals who have anticipated this revenue source for over 10 years. I know … that if we make this tax available, they are going to have plans in place.”
For supporters of a one-tenth of 1 percent mental health sales tax, like myself, it was encouraging to hear all the candidates in attendance either support it or signal what I believe in most cases was a genuine openness. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, throughout the county, citizens and politicians are realizing the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in.
That said, there’s work yet to be done. To get to the necessary supermajority of five votes on the council, it seems likely that the “we-can-figure-out-the-details-later” argument — as defensible, and accurate, as it may be — may not be enough.
So what’s the takeaway?
Only the obvious: With the results of the county’s comprehensive audit of mental health and behavioral health services now in hand, it’s time to get on that plan.
As fast as humanly possible.