County council poised for key vote on $6.1 million mental-health crisis center

In all likelihood, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier will get the votes he needs this week from Pierce County Council members to build a crisis stabilization center in Parkland.

That would be fine — but Dammeier wants all the votes, not just a simple majority. The stabilization center, a signature project, would underline his efforts to address the county’s continuing behavioral health crisis.

“It’s a very good deal for the county,” Dammeier said last week during a meeting with The News Tribune’s editorial board, adding that he hopes to break ground before the end of the year.

The $6.1 million project reflects more than a year of fiscal and political wrangling. Mindful of the council’s conservative bent, Dammeier and a team of advisers have assembled a fiscal package that limits the county’s direct contribution to $500,000. The remaining funding would come from state and federal sources, while ongoing operating costs would be funded through Medicaid.

The 16-bed facility would aim to serve people facing immediate crises due to mental illness or substance-abuse issues or a combination. Staffed by mental-health professionals, it would mirror a similar facility in Fife, and it would be operated by the same private provider, Recovery Innovations.

Location was a key factor in the planning process. The center would be built at 1420 112th St. E., across from Franklin Pierce High School.

Conveniently, the county’s Department of Emergency Management already owns the site, which simplifies the property-acquisition process.

Also, the Parkland-Spanaway location was a critical element of the project. First responders, including Sheriff Paul Pastor and leaders of Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, told Dammeier that a location near state Route 512 would be ideal, allowing for quick transport and avoiding long trips to Fife.

“As more and more crisis cases are occurring in the Parkland/Spanaway area, our paramedics and EMTs are in need of a facility near this location,” Fire Chief Daniel Olson told Dammeier last year.

While the facility will be secure, locked and fenced, and won’t allow walk-ins, the location next to the school might raise safety concerns among residents. Dammeier has met with former Franklin Pierce School District superintendent Frank Hewins, who expressed support for the project. Separately, Steve O’Ban, Dammeier’s senior counsel for behavioral health, has discussed the project with current superintendent Lance Goodpaster and Franklin Pierce High School principal Ronald Hartley.

County Councilman Rick Talbert, whose represents the Parkland-Spanaway area, also is on board. He recently toured the Recovery Innovations site in Fife to gain perspective.

“I’m comfortable in what takes place there not being any kind of impact on the students,” he said.

While those leaders are giving their backing to the project, Dammeier must contend with County Councilwoman Pam Roach, who wants more information before she makes her vote.

Roach and Councilman Jim McCune have voiced concerns about the people likely to receive treatment at the facility. Inevitably, Roach said, some will have substance-abuse problems that could mean they will use the facility repeatedly.

To back her point, Roach gathered information about a similar facility in Snohomish County and the number of individuals who have used it repeatedly.

“I think in general there has not been a great attempt to get the facts,” she said. “The decisions have been made before the questions have been answered.”

Roach also questions whether the facility would help people with chronic substance-abuse problems, since no patient brought to the facility can stay longer than 48 hours.

“How could you help someone in 48 hours?” she asked. “The answer is you cannot. That is impossible.”

Roach wonders why the county couldn’t take advantage of existing empty space at its jail and convert it into a stabilization center rather than building something new from the ground up.

Councilman Derek Young, who supports the new stabilization center, said retrofitting the jail would be too costly. He added that the crisis center should be viewed as a preventive measure, a metaphorical stop sign aimed at an array of problems.

“Someone who is acting out, we can’t leave them in public because it’s become a problem, or they’re a danger to themselves or others,” he said. “We need a place to transport them that’s not the jail and not the emergency room, so we can get them out of crisis, stabilized and then hopefully transition them into longer-term services, get them into treatment, whatever.

“We can then start working on those issues. That’s kind of the idea here. It’s not to quote, unquote ‘cure’ them. It’s to get them on the path to recovery.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT