Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy delivered her final county budget proposal with a political punch Tuesday.
In the opening statement of the 563-page document, McCarthy urged the County Council to approve a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for mental health services and other programs aimed at reducing homelessness.
“We are one of the few remaining counties that hasn’t passed a one-tenth of 1 percent tax,” McCarthy said Monday. “There is little to no general fund money that supports most of the human and community services that the county does. It’s mostly done through grants — state and federal grants.”
McCarthy’s $900 million budget assumes the council will approve the increase, estimated to generate $6.3 million in 2017. McCarthy, who is in her final year as executive, earmarked some of that money to pay for four new staff positions and seven contractual positions included in the budget that are dedicated to mental and behavioral health needs.
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The rest would be made available to social and health service agencies in Pierce County, McCarthy said.
The Legislature also promised $1.5 million to the county if it approved the tax. McCarthy suggested in an interview that some of that state money be used for Pierce County’s contribution toward the capital costs of a 120-bed psychiatric hospital MultiCare and CHI Franciscan plan to build in Tacoma.
The regional health care giants have asked the county to contribute $1.75 million toward the estimated $40.6 million hospital.
The County Council has put off the sales tax increase, deferring a decision until an analysis of the community’s behavioral health needs was complete. That analysis will be presented at a meeting Sept. 27.
Impatient with the process, the council’s three Democrats introduced an ordinance last week proposing the tax increase.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, attempted to move up the hearing on the proposed one-tenth of 1 percent tax.
Council Republicans defeated her motion.
Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, said she favored the original timeline set by the council, which calls for a public hearing on the tax Nov. 14 — eight days before the council is expected to vote on the budget.
McDonald said she didn’t see the need to rush review of the tax, noting McCarthy has had eight years to push for the tax, and Ladenburg has had four years.
Some of McCarthy’s proposed spending for 2017 rests on passage of the tax.
We are one of the few remaining counties that hasn’t passed a one-tenth of one percent tax.
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy
That includes implementing a contract with seven behavioral health responders.
The responders would work with sheriff’s deputies to get people with mental health complications help instead of sending them to jail or the emergency room because there are no other options, McCarthy said.
Additional positions funded by the mental health tax include a community engagement coordinator, grant coordinator, office assistant and social service manager. These positions would join the county’s Community Connections department, which oversees disbursement of state and federal grants to social and human service organizations.
The County Council would determine how the remainder of the money should be spent — likely through programs focused on prevention, early intervention and treatment, crisis management, and recovery and re-entry.
Other highlights from the proposed budget include:
▪ Five new deputy positions for the Sheriff’s Department.
▪ $900,000 in overtime for the Corrections Bureau to cover vacant positions at the Pierce County Jail
▪ A roughly 2 percent salary increase for county employees
▪ Additional court staffing and services including: one guardian ad litem for Superior Court, a county attorney and legal assistant in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for property crime cases, an additional county attorney in the Office of Assigned Counsel, and electronic monitoring services for the pre-trial program aimed at reducing the number of people in jail.
The proposed 2017 county budget is $34.6 million lower than this year’s, primarily because of declining expenses for expansion of the sewer treatment plant.
Following McCarthy’s presentation, County Council Chairman Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, thanked McCarthy and other department heads in attendance, saying the council has a lot to discuss in the next month and a half before it must approve the budget.