Spend any time at all talking to new Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s enamored with these vans.
Not just any vans. Rather, Dammeier has his eye on two mobile crisis intervention teams, operating throughout the county, delivering rapid behavioral health services to those in critical and immediate need.
Crisis teams, in vans.
“Maybe our vans will have vehicle wraps … trying to build awareness,” Dammeier mused aloud during a phone conversation about the most noteworthy piece of his state of the county address Wednesday — the $4.7 million dedicated to behavioral health in his proposed $10.7 million budget adjustment.
The vans, Dammeier believes, will help those suffering from behavioral health crises get “served more quickly, get into the care that they need more quickly, and get off the hands of law enforcement more quickly.”
“Think of them like behavioral health first responders,” he told those gathered for his state of the county address.
Think of them like behavioral health first responders. Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, describing his proposed crisis intervention teams
The vans, and more importantly the crisis intervention teams that will use them if the County Council signs off on Dammeier’s supplemental budget proposal, are one of a handful of “targeted investments,” to use the county executive’s words, to be funded through what he describes as a “dedicated behavioral health partnership fund.”
The $4.7 million Dammeier proposes putting into the fund, which he hopes will be bolstered by contributions from the private sector and the state, also will go toward a 16-bed, short stay diversion center and a one-time $500,000 contribution to the planned 120-bed psychiatric hospital to be jointly run by MultiCare and CHI Franciscan. The total $10.7 million supplemental budget adjustment also includes more than $1 million for homelessness-related services, with an emphasis on housing homeless military veterans and serving youths and young adults.
The financial promise, it’s been pointed out, is roughly half of what the county would have brought in had the County Council mustered the supermajority of votes needed last year to pass a countywide one tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health and chemical dependency programs.
“I am not waiting for the council to act on a mental health tax,” Dammeier recently told The News Tribune editorial board. “We can’t stand by idly.”
Dammeier described the relationship between the two figures as purely coincidental. “That’s not what we tried to do,” he said of hitting the halfway mark.
Still, that’s precisely what he’s done.
So it’s worth contemplating just how much can be accomplished — or, perhaps more realistic at this point, how progress will be measured.
Dammeier says the road map for his supplemental budget is last year’s behavioral health study.
A sizable document produced after a sizable amount of political bickering, the study can be summed up fairly succinctly: Pierce County doesn’t have a functioning behavioral health system so much as it has a patchwork of disjointed and overtaxed players, resulting in a myriad of dangerous and detrimental gaps in the safety net that should exist for the county’s most vulnerable.
Dammeier’s proposals identify a few of the most obvious missing links: the need for quicker care for those experiencing a behavioral health crisis; the need for more short-term resources for those in need of behavioral health stabilization; and the need to reduce the burden that behavioral health challenges currently place on local law enforcement officials and the county jail.
In highlighting these gaps, and in prescribing remedies specifically designed to address them, the county executive has also provided a clear lens through which to gauge their success or failure.
It’s a fact Dammeier is well aware of.
I want to invest money with a plan, and some specific outcomes, and then we’ll hold ourselves accountable. Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier
“All those things, I believe, are measurable in some form or fashion,” Dammeier told me.
“I’m concerned about peanut buttering, spreading money across where there’s no impact,” he added. “I want to invest money with a plan, and some specific outcomes, and then we’ll hold ourselves accountable.”
It’s a strategy, and mindset, that’s hard to argue with.
But it also prompts a note of caution: This limited step in the right direction might ultimately reveal how big of a hole Pierce County is in, and just how much money will be required to dig ourselves out if we truly want to fix the county’s broken behavioral health system.
And there’s a good chance it will be more than a few van-fulls.