Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor provided a moment of comic relief at a public meeting last week that needed some. Leaning against a back wall, he bumped the light switch and plunged the room into darkness.
Pastor’s pratfall brought laughter from the crowd on a gloomy night when his fellow elected leaders let down thousands of the county’s most vulnerable residents.
The power outage also could be a metaphor for the County Council’s disappointing 4-3 vote Tuesday rejecting a proposed mental health tax.
For thousands trapped in the pit of mental illness or addiction, and for the countless individuals who care about them, this was the night the lights went out in Pierce County.
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A minority bloc of council members, exploiting the county’s undemocratic supermajority rule, was able to short circuit a modest .01-percent sales tax increase that would have paid for mental health and chemical dependency services.
The situation has been dim for years. Untreated people fill local streets, homeless camps, jails and emergency rooms. Our county is at rock bottom compared to the rest of the state with only 2.8 inpatient beds for every 100,000 residents. A consultant’s study presented to the council this fall made a strong case for more public resources.
But on Tuesday, council members couldn’t muster the elusive fifth vote needed to pass a new tax. They were left stumbling in the dark, making promises to take the fight to Olympia or offering assurances to try again next year, echoes of similar pledges they made in 2014 and 2015.
There was talk of drawing up an air-tight plan that will win broad council support in 2017. There was talk of being accountable to taxpayers, of proving to them once and for all that every nickel raised by a sales tax hike would be well spent.
Hope springs eternal. But hope has met its match in the never-ending debate over mental health funding. Even the most hopeful observer would be wise to question whether Pierce County has the political will and compassion to join all the other Washington counties — 22 of them — that have adopted this tax since the state authorized it in 2005.
Another sign that county leaders are derelict on mental health? Their recent adoption of the 2017 budget. It includes no money to help build a nonprofit psychiatric hospital in Tacoma — a commitment that several other local governments have made.
The three council members who cast “no” votes Tuesday were Republicans Joyce McDonald, Dan Roach and Jim McCune. They cited a relentless stream of tax increases, including the $54 billion Sound Transit measure voters approved on Nov. 8, as central to their opposition.
“It breaks my heart tonight to say I’m going to be voting ‘no’ on this,” McDonald said beforehand. “This is an issue that has touched my heart.”
In her familiar role as the swing vote, McDonald occupied the hot seat Tuesday. She deserves a “pass the buck” award for trying to send the mental health tax to the ballot next year, as she did with her feckless marijuana advisory vote this year.
At least Roach and McCune are consistent in their anti-tax populism. McDonald? Not so much.
In 2012, she was the driving force behind raising property taxes countywide for a flood control district that mostly benefits her Puyallup Valley constituents — and she voted against sending that taxing authority to a vote of the people.
At the time, she said flood protection is an issue that requires the area “to stand together as one Pierce County.”
The same could be said — should be said — about mental illness and substance abuse.
McDonald is leaving the council this year and was elected to the Legislature. She vows to push the state to reclaim its responsibility for mental health care, which it abdicated years ago. It won’t be easy, given the state’s multi-billion dollar obligation for public school funding in 2017.
Gov. Jay Inslee rolled out a $300 million mental health plan last week that calls for more community treatment beds. The pressure now falls on McDonald and her Republican statehouse colleagues to get behind it or offer something better.
On Tuesday, nearly two hours of testimony on the proposed county tax was dominated by those who favor it, from ordinary citizens to business owners, from mental health professionals to public safety officials like Pastor.
After the sheriff turned the lights back on, the first person to speak was Terri Card, president of Greater Lakes Mental Health. Her comments were illuminating.
“You can’t drive or walk around our community without seeing people who are literally fighting for their lives. Help is not coming from the federal level; help is not coming from the state level. Will we as a community step forward and say, ‘this is important enough.’?”
Perhaps next year the answer finally will be yes. We’re counting on incoming County Executive Bruce Dammeier to sweet talk and arm twist his fellow Republicans.
The best hope for enlightenment in 2017 is that an even larger public groundswell will emerge, demanding decisive and humane action on mental health.
We’ll be watching for a response from the County Council, as well as the Legislature, presumably with Rep. Joyce McDonald leading the charge.