Spoiler: It won’t be a pretty picture. That much seems certain.
If the Pierce County Council does the responsible thing and pays for an outside audit of the county’s mental health resources — and, as always with this council, that’s a significant if – the audit will show sizable gaps, troublesome holes and negligent inactions.
That’s part of the reason Councilmembers Connie Ladenburg and Derek Young are pushing for an objective assessment. A resolution introduced by the pair last week would authorize “a comprehensive audit of Pierce County’s behavioral health system,” according to the press release, to identify where the problems are and “where investments would be appropriate and what success should look like.”
As it stands, we know what failure looks like.
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It looks like the status quo in Pierce County, where elected leaders bicker over whose responsibility it is to pay for mental health services. It looks like a jail full of people who would be better served by medicine. It looks like overwhelmed hospital emergency rooms and social service safety nets.
It looks like a bunch of wasted money spent dealing with the repercussions of the problem instead of the root causes.
But the specifics are important. Anecdotally, we know all too well that Pierce County is failing its residents. But the knowledge of just how it’s failing, where it’s failing and how badly it’s failing is valuable information moving forward.
The problem, of course, is how exactly we move forward.
Or if we move forward at all.
It didn’t take much to recognize the undercurrent to the press release last week announcing the proposed audit. Pierce County remains the only large urban county in the state that hasn’t adopted a one-tenth of 1 percent sale tax to pay for mental health services. The city of Tacoma also has authorized the tax, recognizing the need on the street far outweighs constitutional semantics.
State law authorizes us to impose the tax, but so far Pierce County has resisted. The County Council’s conservative majority has instead taken a pointless ideological stand, arguing that it’s the state’s responsibility to fund mental health, not the county’s.
Good luck with that.
To those hurting, Pierce County says tough luck. Not our problem.
Most recently, the council voted unanimously in December against sending an advisory vote to the ballot asking voters whether they support the mental health sales tax hike. At the time, even Ladenburg and her Democratic colleague Rick Talbert — who both support the tax — said things like, “We need to build the case first,” and “It’s just not ready for prime time.”
Consider the proposed audit the first (long overdue) step in making that case.
Of course, whether or not the audit even happens remains a big question. This is a council that’s not just opposed to raising sales tax to pay for mental health services; it’s opposed to even talking about mental health like it’s a subject worth their time.
Ladenburg and Young’s resolution is on the council’s consent agenda on Aug. 4, and — if it makes it that far — will receive full consideration Aug. 25.
Cross your fingers. While it sure seems like a no-brainer to seek accurate information about mental health services in Pierce County to guide future discussion and decision making, we should expect heavy opposition.
Which is sad. And a bunch of other unpleasant adjectives.
Perhaps wisely, Ladenburg and Young are reluctant at this point to talk about the audit as a precursor to renewed consideration of a mental health sales tax. They tell me getting a clear picture of mental health services is a necessary first step.
Comparing what’s happening in Pierce County to other areas of our state, they say, can show what works and what doesn’t, and more importantly how we can do better.
“It’s going to bring the awareness that we all need about mental health in our community,” Ladenburg says of the proposed audit. “We can’t even have that conversation if we truly don’t know what the problem is.”
“Identifying what the problem is and what we’re failing to do should provide value … regardless of the position you’re going to take afterward,” Young adds.
Those are well-chosen words given the political landscape.
But let’s be clear: While we may not know every specific, we know precisely what the problem is.
When it comes to mental health, and serving our community, the County Council has so far refused to do its job.
“You don’t have to be an expert to know that we’ve got a huge problem,” Young tells me. “We are where we are, and it’s not going to change unless we change it.”
And the longer the County Council refuses to accept it, the more people suffer.