Matt Driscoll

Where Talbert and Dammeier stand on a potential mental health sales tax

It sometimes feels like we’ve been having the debate over whether to levy a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health since the beginning of time.

Dinosaurs remained divided. Cavemen couldn’t reach consensus. The Gilded Age brought no accord.

And so here we are — our emergency rooms flooded, our jails packed, and the banks of our rivers crowded with people suffering, in part, due to our historic inaction on the matter.

It’s into this longstanding holding pattern that our candidates for county executive, Rick Talbert and Bruce Dammeier, now find themselves orbiting.

Yes, a decision on whether to enact the tax will ultimately — and perhaps frustratingly — come down to the Pierce County Council.

But where our next county executive stands on the matter is still worth considering.

Talbert is no stranger to this discussion. As a member of the Democratic minority on the Pierce County Council, he’s seen it play out over six years. And he’s been unequivocal in his support for the tax.

“We’ve stymied ourselves,” Talbert said in April of Pierce County’s predicament as the only large urban county in the state that hasn’t adopted the one-tenth of 1 percent sale tax provided under state law to pay for local mental health services. He was standing in the bowels of the Nativity House in Tacoma, where county officials appropriately chose to release the disturbing findings of this year’s point-in-time homeless count.

“I see this as something that is long overdue,” Talbert told me Friday, doubling down on his position. “We unfortunately have a County Council that has refused to address the issue. I absolutely know that in order for us to move forward and actually save taxpayer dollars, we need to implement this.”

While the problems in our jails and emergency rooms, and the regional homeless crisis — Pierce County’s part of it — cannot solely be blamed on the County Council’s reluctance to adopt a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for mental health, nearly every expert I’ve spoken to over the past year and a half has identified it as a significant problem.

That’s social workers. And police officers. And substance abuse specialists.

Here, you have agreement.

The politicians, on the other hand … well, I’ve already written that column several times.

Still, Dammeier represents an intriguing new character in Pierce County’s ongoing mental health tax drama. As a member of Pierce County’s delegation in the Legislature, having spent time in both the state House and Senate, he tells me that Pierce County’s refusal to pass the tax often meant he and his colleagues felt like they were “sent down (to Olympia) with one arm tied behind our back.”

In other words, Dammeier has the potential to bring a different perspective to one of the key impediments Pierce County has had when it comes to finally implementing a mental health sales tax: the tired squabble over who’s responsible for paying for mental health services, the county or the state.

More importantly, even if we agree state government is shirking its responsibility to some degree, is that enough to justify the county doing nothing, especially with a tool like the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax, which more than 20 other counties in the state use?

“I think the statement is mostly accurate,” Dammeier says of mental health funding being the state’s responsibility. “But the way it’s been used as an excuse … I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to (pass a mental health tax).

“I always told my kids it’s OK to be different than everybody else, but you really got to know why and be sure of it,” he continues. “For me that’s not a sufficient reason to not step up and take care of our local citizens who are mentally ill.”

The difference in the candidates’ positions on the mental health sales tax comes down largely to timing.

For his part, Dammeier acknowledges the mental health crisis in Pierce County, and says he supports enacting the tax to help — provided there’s a firm plan in place on how the money will be spent and a clear vision for how it will help fix the problem.

He tells me both are important to be able to make the case to voters.

“I think it’s a very important issue for our county,” Dammeier says, calling it a priority. “I believe we can come up with a plan (for how to effectively spend money from a mental health sales tax). Ultimately, if I’m elected, I have to own the plan, and I’ve got to own execution of the plan.”

That’s hard to argue with.

But, it’s worth noting that no one is advocating for going without a plan.

The results of the county’s long-awaited mental health assessment are expected later this month, and — even if the tax would were passed today — it would be six months before it went into effect.

The broad strokes of a plan are there, Talbert says, and haggling over minutiae shouldn’t lead to further delay.

“I’m absolutely sure of the fact that we need this resource, and the County Council should move forward on it,” Talbert says. “At this point, to say that we need to put this off, I find highly disingenuous, because we all know the problem is in existence, and the need is great, and we can work out the details.”

Voters can decide which answer they like best.