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Pierce County Council considers sales tax increase to support mental health, chemical dependency

The Pierce County Council will decide next month whether to increase sales tax countywide by one-tenth of 1 percent to pay for mental health and chemical dependency services.

On Monday, the council had moved past that decision and focused on who oversees the dispersal of the new revenue.

If the council approves the tax, all of Pierce County would see its sales tax go up in 2017, except for the city of Tacoma, which already collects the tax.

Initial estimates show the increase would generate $10.4 million in new revenue in 2017. The money would be dedicated to mental health and chemical dependency programs.

Council Democrats Connie Ladenburg, Derek Young and Rick Talbert proposed an ordinance in September requiring the council vote on the tax.

The council discussed the ordinance for the first time at a committee meeting Monday.

Instead of debating whether to approve the tax, the council discussed the need for a committee to oversee distribution of the tax collection.

The conversation came after three meetings where the public commented on a recent behavioral health study that showed Pierce County has a higher-than-average need for mental health and chemical dependency services than other counties in the state.

At least 200 people attended the first meeting Oct. 12 at Pacific Lutheran University. Parents shared stories of children struggling with mental health and substance abuse and a lack of community resources or treatment.

Most stories ended with tragic outcomes, including suicide. In one case, a son killed his father.

While the stories differed, the message was clear: More needs to be done.

“We need to treat the folks who are suffering as if they are suffering from any other disease,” Talbert, D-Tacoma, said Monday.

Although they didn’t have to, all seven council members attended Monday’s committee meeting. Most were there for most of the two-hour discussion.

The council spent much of the meeting discussing the nuances of a coordinating council that would advise the County Council on how to spend the new revenue.

Examples of similar committees in King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Mason, Lewis and Whatcom counties were supplied.

A 15-member committee proposed by Young, D-Gig Harbor, was debated alongside a 19-member committee proposed by the county’s Community Connections department.

Young’s proposal called for a board made up of mental health and chemical dependency professionals, a supportive housing representative, a Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health representative and representatives from elected county offices, such as executive, prosecutor and sheriff.

“I heard the desire by council members to keep this very tight on the project level so no funds can be appropriated until it is approved by the (county) council,” Young said.

Ladenburg and Talbert said they favored the Community Connections committee makeup.

“It seems more heavily composed of nongovernmental folks, of providers and people involved in the providing of these services,” Talbert said.

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, cautioned against having too many people on the committee, suggesting instead subcommittees to tackle technical and policy issues.

Council Chairman Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, asked whether cities should have a say because money would come from their communities.

Councilman Jim McCune, R-Graham, went one step further.

“As far as incorporated cities, I think we should give them the option to do what they want with the money,” he said.

Money from the county’s unincorporated areas “should stay in unincorporated Pierce County,” he said, so people don’t have to leave their neighborhood for help.

“It should not come to downtown Tacoma,” McCune said.

Ladenburg, Young and Talbert wanted a decision on the tax before the council approves its proposed 2017 budget, but that won’t happen.

The council will vote on the budget Nov. 22. The sales tax increase vote is expected Dec. 13.

If the council approves the tax, the new revenue and potential uses would be incorporated into the budget at a later date as a supplemental addition.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467,

@bgrimley

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