In mid-January, when the Pierce County Council selected Lakewood Republican Doug Richardson as its new chairman, few took notice. It’s tough to blame them.
The cold truth of the matter is that average citizens couldn’t care less about who serves as chairman of the Pierce County Council or who runs its four major committees. Sorry to disappoint, elected officials.
No, what the people of Pierce County do care about is having a functioning government that works for them, and an elected body that avoids the temptation to devolve important conversations into partisan bickering.
And in 2016, for my money, one issue looms larger than most: How our long gridlocked County Council will step up to deal with the worsening behavioral and mental health crisis.
Or if it will.
As you might recall, late last year the County Council finally gave in and authorized a comprehensive analysis of the county’s behavioral health systems.
Championed by Democrats Connie Ladenburg of Tacoma and Derek Young of Gig Harbor, the idea is to (among other things) identify flaws and assess the impact and cost of unmet behavioral health needs — shortcomings that now fill our emergency rooms and jail beds (among other things).
For us to really have a thorough understanding of the mental health system, we need to really look at what’s happening in our cities as well as the unincorporated areas.
Pierce County Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg
Work toward that goal has commenced, with Bill Vetter, the county’s senior legislative analyst, telling me he expects the county’s request for proposals to be finalized within the next two weeks. The hope is that we’ll soon have at least three proposals to choose from, submitted by agencies skilled at conducting these sorts of studies.
While Vetter isn’t sure exactly how many proposals the county might receive, he’s hopeful, telling me the initial indication is “there will be interest.” An interview committee, including Richardson, Ladenburg, and perhaps a behavioral health expert or two, will vet the proposals and then recommend one to the full council.
That all sounds fairly straightforward, and is consistent with the council’s early September vote on the matter. But as is often the case with this particular group of elected officials, good-faith work may end up being sidetracked.
Signs of that unfortunate potential again reared their heads earlier this month during a council study session, when talk veered toward what should be an unthinkable possibility — conducting the county’s behavioral health audit in a way that allows cities to be excluded.
The goal, presumably, would be to collect data on how only the unincorporated parts of Pierce County are affected — information that could later be used by voters to inform a decision on a potential one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health.
Historically, the Republicans on the Pierce County Council who have opposed studying the county’s behavioral health failings (or addressing the problem) have done so on the grounds that mental health services are solely the state’s responsibility. I don’t agree with that take, but — given the history, and the funding squabble that led county officials to hand mental health services off to state lawmakers nearly a decade ago — I can understand how one might arrive at the conclusion.
I can even understand the consistent stance of Puyallup Republican Joyce McDonald, who is firm in her belief that if we’re going to tax the people of unincorporated Pierce County for mental health services, they should have a say in the matter.
I definitely feel strongly that if the intent of this Council is to impose a a one-tenth of 1 percent sale tax, then the least they can to is ask those people in unincorporated Pierce County who will be paying for it if they agree.
Pierce County Councilwoman Joyce McDonald
But there’s been an undercurrent to many of the council’s discussions on behavioral health that deserves calling out, and it surfaces again here — the idea that, somehow, mental health is a big city problem, and the rural, unincorporated parts of our county stand unaffected.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In conducting this study, Pierce County has a long overdue chance to finally understand what we’re dealing with, how it affects the entire county, and how we can move forward. What we do from there is up for debate: we could use the findings to make the case to voters of the need for a countywide mental health sales tax, or take the results to Olympia to show legislators how they’re letting us down.
But human services are something that cross all jurisdictional lines. If we single out cities, like Tacoma, Lakewood and Puyallup — where the bulk of our behavioral health services are offered, where people are pushed to access those limited services, and where the impacts of the flaws in our system are most glaring — what will we really have?
Answer: An incomplete picture.
It’s a situation worth monitoring.
And it’s one new Council Chairman Doug Richardson is now responsible for managing.