Pierce County Council to decide Tuesday whether to ask public about mental health tax

The Pierce County Council will decide Tuesday whether to ask voters next year if they would raise their taxes to pay for mental health and chemical dependency services.

A measure to increase the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent would appear on the November ballot. It would be an advisory vote, which means it wouldn’t be binding on the County Council to enact it.

Departing Councilman Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, proposed the advisory vote during his bid for re-election this fall.

It was uncertain last week whether enough council members— at least four of the seven members— would approve holding the vote.

Flemming, a physician, said he personally supports raising the tax because only a small percentage of people needing mental health services are currently receiving them. But the council needs to hear what voters think about it, he said.

Elected officials have said “this is what the people want,” Flemming said. “We haven’t heard from the public.”

Flemming said he initially considered a February vote but moved the proposed date to the Nov. 3 general election for a better voter turnout.

Under state law, only the County Council has the authority to adopt a sales tax increase specifically for mental health services. And under the county charter, it takes a supermajority of five council members to approve most new taxes or tax increases, including this one.

The advisory vote would not increase the county’s costs for the election in November because the county already has items on the ballot, said county Auditor Julie Anderson.

The vote would be put to all Pierce County residents—except those in the city of Tacoma, Anderson said. That’s because the Tacoma City Council in March 2012 already approved adding the sales tax increase for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Statewide, 22 of 39 counties have adopted the tax, which amounts to one cent for every $10 purchase. Pierce County is the only large urban county in the state that hasn’t done so.

Last week, the County Council’s Rules and Operations Committee voted 2-1 to forward the measure to the full council without making a recommendation.

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, voted “no.” She said mental health care is the responsibility of the state, not the county.

Council Chairman Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, and Councilman Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, voted “yes.”

Roach opposes the tax but said he supports an advisory vote because it would show his constituents also oppose it.

Richardson said he wants to have more discussion Tuesday.

Councilman Jim McCune, R-Graham, said last week he opposes the tax. McCune said he’s leaning against an advisory vote but hasn’t made a decision.

The council’s two Democrats support adding the tax but are balking at an advisory vote.

Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma, has said he opposes putting the vote to the public because the council hasn’t discussed the issue.

Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, said she likely will vote against having an advisory ballot. She said gaps in mental health services need to be studied first.

Flemming said no further study is needed. It’s already clear that more in-patient and out-patient services and mental health providers are required, he said.

Democrats and members of the mental health community who have pushed for the tax need to support the advisory vote, Flemming said.

“I’m giving them the opportunity to kind of put up or forever be quiet,” he said.

Pierce County District Court Judge Pat O’Malley is leading an effort for more mental health services and urging the council to adopt the tax. O’Malley told The News Tribune’s editorial board Thursday the tax money is needed to help those with mental health problems who wind up in hospitals and courts.

But O’Malley said he wants the council to postpone the decision on an advisory vote, saying it could prove to be “toxic.”

The turnout may be low, he said, and residents in rural areas may vote against a new tax.

O’Malley said it’s the council’s responsibility to decide to add the tax, but a negative advisory vote could eliminate any chance the council would adopt it.

Derek Young, who unseated Flemming and supports O’Malley’s effort, campaigned on adding the mental health tax. Young, D-Gig Harbor, said he supports an advisory ballot, but only after a plan is developed for how the additional revenue would be spent. Young takes office in January.

Flemming said the public will turn out if the issue is important to them.

“If the public were to say ‘no’, then I think the debate is clearly over and it falls to the state (for services),” Flemming said. “If the public says ‘yes’, then it’s up to the council to make it work.”

The last time the council raised countywide taxes was in 2012, when it approved a property tax of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to pay for flood control projects. It did not hold an advisory ballot before enacting the tax.