Puyallup recently injected a head-scratching, eleventh-hour distraction into the long debate over a Pierce County mental health tax. Now the city has acquitted itself with an eleventh-and-a-half-hour gesture of good faith and good sense.
After weeks of mixed signals, herky-jerky actions and no explanations, Puyallup abandoned its ill-conceived idea to secede from the county’s proposed tax, wisely opting not to go it alone.
“In effect, the City of Puyallup will defer to the discretion of the County Council regarding imposition of the tax on a county-wide basis,” Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto wrote in an email to county officials Thursday. “As you deliberate the issue, the City of Puyallup wishes upon you wisdom, discretion and sound judgment — you will, after all, be making a significant decision for Pierce County.”
Yamamoto is correct about the significance. Puyallup’s gracious though belated blessing should remove one of the last obstacles blocking a .01-percent sales tax, which is levied by every other urban Washington county, plus Tacoma.
With the County Council set for a climactic vote before Christmas, Puyallup leaders raised the drama a notch before Thanksgiving by suggesting they might adopt their own tax. With them would have gone 20 percent of the annual new revenue the county is eyeing for psychiatric intervention, substance abuse treatment and community behavioral health resources to get people off the streets.
The frantic episode reflected poorly on the leadership of Pierce County’s third-largest city. Within a 24-hour period, the City Council scheduled an emergency special meeting to consider a city tax, then canceled it, along with a discussion that had been planned for its regular council meeting.
The emergency approach allowed the city to bypass the lengthy public notice usually given to citizens when new taxes are floated. A little research would have shown the rash action to be unnecessary, as the County Council’s final Dec. 13 vote was still three weeks away.
Why did Puyallup officials suddenly have their hair on fire over a proposal the County Council has wrestled with for more than a year? A proposal that’s been vetted at several public meetings, including in East Pierce County?
Apparently they had an epiphany about the amount of potential revenue they would forfeit. With a large retail tax base propped up by car dealerships, Puyallup accounts for $2 million of the estimated $10 million the county expects to collect — what Yamamoto calls a disproportionate subsidy.
“Fundamentally, the City wishes to ensure that its residents and businesses will benefit equitably within the context of a regional system,” Yamamoto wrote in his email.
This is a reasonable wish, and Puyallup officials can’t be faulted for expecting fair stewardship. In that spirit, the County Council adopted an amendment giving Puyallup and Lakewood representation on a committee that will determine how to allocate funds collected by the tax.
Puyallup also should feel confident because they’re not only represented by the District 2 County Council member (Joyce McDonald, to be succeeded by Pam Roach in January), they also have the ear of newly elected Bruce Dammeier, the first county executive ever to hail from Puyallup. These officials are too smart to let the city’s largesse be exploited.
A lot of notoriety has fallen on Puyallup this year — including a “hall of shame” label from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty — as the city has struggled to deal with an entrenched homeless population. Officials have faced criticism while trying to regulate New Hope Resource Center, a homeless referral center on the edge of downtown.
Untreated mental illness figures prominently in the alarming rise of homeless people in urban areas and suburbs, even as it fills jail cells and hospital ERs. The county tax will apply additional funds, best practices and fresh eyes, which could help break through the politics and personalities that have polarized Puyallup.
The South Sound’s mental health crisis is a regional problem crying out for a regional solution. Most communities have an acute understanding of this truth. Puyallup just had to follow a longer, roundabout route to get there.