Pierce County Council approves mental health study on second try

A week after failing to agree to a compromise, the Pierce County Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to approve a comprehensive study of local behavioral health services — the first step toward possibly adopting a countywide mental-health tax in the future.

Republican Councilman Jim McCune of Graham was the lone opponent.

The approval came a week after a nearly identical proposal was rejected by a divided council. Ahead of last week’s vote, an apparent compromise quickly evaporated and shifted to partisan posturing.

Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, who opposed the mental-health study last week, praised Tuesday’s decision to move forward.

“I felt that there was a good-faith move on both sides to compromise,” the Puyallup Republican said. “I felt it was appropriate for me to make that same good-faith effort.”

The study will try to pinpoint where the mental health system doesn’t work and where improvements can be made. It will seek to quantify how much the county spends to use jails and emergency rooms for treating and housing mentally ill and chemically dependent people, among other things.

The primary sticking point for council members last week was disagreement over which arm of county government should oversee the study.

The original proposal directed the Performance Audit Committee to do so. The proposal approved Tuesday shifted that responsibility to the full council.

The disagreement triggered last week’s demise of the overall proposal, causing frustrated council members on both sides of the issue to complain about the group’s unwillingness to compromise.

Connie Ladenburg of Tacoma originally proposed the study along with fellow Democrat Derek Young of Gig Harbor.

“It was evident last week that many of us were supportive of the underlying resolution,” Ladenburg said prior to Tuesday’s vote. “It was how to get there that we had concerns about. Now I think we’ve figured it out.”

Remarks from Ladenburg and other council members Tuesday were brief compared to the lively debate last week.

Despite her change in position, McDonald reiterated her desire to pressure the state to fulfill its constitutional obligation to pay for behavioral health services.

She said that remains her top priority.

“I have not dropped the fact that this needs to be sincerely addressed by the state,” McDonald said.

Young said during Tuesday’s meeting that he appreciated McDonald’s support, and vowed that the council would work to hold the state accountable.

McDonald also said an important step will be asking voters whether they’re willing to fund behavioral health services.

Pierce County is the only large urban county in the state that doesn’t have a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax provided under state law to pay for local mental health services. More than 20 other counties have adopted the revenue source.

In 2008, Pierce County relinquished its role administering local mental health services after a standoff with state regulators over funding. The decision by then-County Executive John Ladenburg and other leaders forced the state to contract with private contractor OptumHealth.

The original proposal for a county study was rejected last week despite overwhelming support from advocates in attendance, ranging from local residents and mental health professionals to judges and state legislators.

The amended proposal approved Tuesday was modified with bipartisan support.

Young said the new version tweaked language to make the study’s criteria more flexible, among other minor changes.

“The change was trust,” Young said . “It took a little bit of time to build that up.”