“Until the day before, I thought this was done,” County Councilman Derek Young told me Wednesday, disillusionment in his voice.
“I thought we were going to pass it.”
More than a year after the Pierce County Council began its long, grueling trudge toward what many hoped would finally be the passing of a countywide one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase for mental health, homelessness and chemical dependency programs, that dream died — at least for the time being — Tuesday night.
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The tax would have generated more than $10 million and cost the average household about $19 a year, according to Gary Robinson, Pierce County’s director of budget and finance.
Now, Pierce County retains the dubious distinction of the only urban county in the state without the behavioral health tax. In fact, 22 other Washington counties — many of them much more conservative than Pierce — have wisely passed the tax.
Pierce County, meanwhile, can’t find it in its heart to do the right thing.
The death was of the worst variety — an unexpected one. It caught supporters off guard. It left the four County Council members who voted in favor of the tax increase — and especially its three Democrats — flummoxed and flabbergasted.
I’m extremely disappointed. Not for me, not for the council, not for government. I’m disappointed for the people who are on the street, the people who live with mental illness.
Tacoma Democrat Connie Ladenburg
“I’m extremely disappointed. Not for me, not for the council, not for government. I’m disappointed for the people who are on the street, the people who live with mental illness,” said Tacoma Democrat Connie Ladenburg.
“I’m angry and grieving. … I’m not over it yet.”
It’s a sting that’s not likely to go away soon. And it’s not strictly partisan in nature. “I thought we were going to get there,” said Lakewood Republican and Council Chairman Doug Richardson.
“Yeah, I am (disappointed). But you’ve just got to drive on.”
Since last year, when the council signed off on an extensive independent study of Pierce County’s broken behavioral health system, the endgame was clear. It was about last Tuesday night and making the case for why the tax was so desperately needed.
And — make no mistake — that case was made. Pore over the damning study, or listen to story after story of heartbreak and despair delivered to the council over the past several months, and that much is clear.
There’s blame to go around. The seven-member County Council needed a supermajority of five to pass the tax. And with a superminority of three Republicans voting against it — Bonney Lake’s Dan Roach, Graham’s Jim McCune and Puyallup’s Joyce McDonald — ultimately, they couldn’t get there.
McDonald has been identified as the deciding “no” vote. That’s largely because McCune and Roach have been consistent in their short-sighted views on the tax, and because McDonald, through her actions and comments, seemed to have come around over the past few months.
Young, D-Gig Harbor, describes a process of crafting the behavioral tax ordinance — including developing policy framework and oversight provisions — in which McDonald was “integral … and supportive the whole way.”
And while McDonald never publicly indicated she would vote in favor of the ordinance, according to Young, “It wasn’t so much that she said she supported it, but that she acted as though it was going to pass and wanted to set it up to her liking.”
It wasn’t so much that (McDonald) said she supported it, but that she acted as though it was going to pass and wanted to set it up to her liking.
Gig Harbor Democrat Derek Young
But at the last minute “she flipped,” as Ladenburg put it.
Saying she was brokenhearted, and that a solid case had been made for the tax, McDonald indicated she was nonetheless voting no because the timing was bad and because she wanted voters to weigh in.
So what happened?
Two things: Sound Transit 3 — the $54 billion transit and light rail expansion — passed last month, despite Pierce County voters rejecting it.
And Gig Harbor’s Jerry Gibbs — chairman of Citizens for Responsible Spending and an anti-tax activist with a seemingly growing influence over Republicans on the council — got involved at the eleventh hour.
Ladenburg referred to Gibbs as “Pierce County’s Tim Eyman.”
It wasn’t a compliment.
With an email list of some 4,600 like-minded supporters, Gibbs said he “rallied the troops” as this week’s vote neared — urging them to call or email Republicans on the council, such as McDonald.
Gibbs — who told me taxes “should be the last option, not the first solution” — delivered a simple message to council Republicans:
With the recent ST3 vote and its associated taxes, the timing was bad, and the voters should weigh in.
“I know that there were a lot of calls and emails that made it to the council,” Gibbs said. “You change the tenor of the conversation when it comes time to make the vote. … It’s an effective tool.”
You change the tenor of the conversation when it comes time to make the vote. … It’s an effective tool.
Jerry Gibbs, chairman of Citizens for Responsible Spending
Richardson said he received roughly 50 calls and emails, most using Gibbs’ ST3 line of argument. It’s difficult to say how many McDonald received, in part because she declined comment for this column.
The last-minute push seems to have worked.
“We literally heard from thousands of people who begged us to do something to help,” said Talbert.
“And yet a handful of emails that have the opposite message completely overturned what we thought were the five votes lined up to support this. In that regard, it is safe to say that the influence of a handful of individuals, led by Mr. Gibbs’ efforts, probably had much more impact.”
That’s depressing, but let’s avoid giving Gibbs more credit than he deserves.
Yes, Gibbs rallied the troops and likely rattled Republicans on the council in the process.
But, at the end of the day, what he provided was little more than a convenient political out.
It was McDonald who took it.