Last week, as city of Tacoma employees and elected officials grappled with how to respond to a growing crisis of homelessness and related behavioral health issues, elected members of the Pierce County Council took a different approach to a problem that certainly extends well beyond Tacoma’s city lines.
They didn’t respond.
In fact, they turned their back on the crisis.
How so, you might reluctantly ask?
On May 9, the council voted — 5 to 2 — to pass an amendment by Council Chairman Doug Richardson that would all but decimate the modest (and I’m being generous here) attempt to fund a handful of local behavioral health programs that County Executive Bruce Dammeier made earlier this year.
In March, Dammeier proposed to carve out $4.7 million from his $10.7 million supplemental budget for behavioral health.
The money — coming from existing tax revenues and surplus funds — would largely be spent on two key things: A pair of mobile crisis intervention teams working the east and west sides of the county, using specialized vans, and a 16-bed triage center for patients in crisis.
Dammeier’s proposal also called for $750,000 to assist homeless veterans at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting.
But Richardson’s amendment, if it sticks, will do away with just about all of it.
Dammeier’s crisis vans will be scrapped, as will the 16-bed triage center. And two thirds of the money intended to assist homeless veterans at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting will disappear.
In the process of whittling the supplemental budget adjustment to just $1.45 million, Richardson’s amendment does find money for a few new things: a full-time behavioral health manager, an investigation of Dammeier’s mobile crisis van idea, and a MultiCare-guided pilot program, building on a mobile outreach crisis team the health care giant already operates in Puyallup.
Oh, and it doubles the amount of money the county would contribute to the planned 120-bed Tacoma psychiatric hospital — the one that will be jointly operated by those barely-scraping-by nonprofiteers at MultiCare and CHI Franciscan.
“Anger and frustration are good reactions,” County Councilman Rick Talbert, one of two council members to vote against the amendment, said when I asked him about the proposed cuts.
Anger and frustration are good reactions.
Pierce County Councilman Rick Talbert
There are plenty of reasons to be upset.
But the big problem is we’ve seen this kind of thing before. This is a County Council with a well-documented and clearly disingenuous history of talking big about how much they care about people, then acting otherwise.
Of course, Richardson’s amendment has its reasoning. Such ideas always do.
Yes, one can argue that Dammeier’s crisis vans are expensive, gimmicky and untested. One can posit that such spending decisions deserve more debate and would be better suited for the coming full-budget negotiations. One could even suggest that there might be more effective approaches than the ones Dammeier has proposed.
But, at this point, what you can’t really argue is that delaying the county’s response to the growing behavioral health and homelessness crisis — yet again — serves anyone but a vocal contingent of council members, led by Republicans Pam Roach and Jim McCune, who seem dead set against helping anyone who they’ve deemed unworthy of the county’s resources.
And that, without question, is the most disheartening piece of what we continue to see happening on the County Council dais.
If you’ve suffered through the debate that got us here, you’ve heard it time and time again. Those experiencing homelessness are all drug addled, it is repeatedly suggested. Those battling addiction or homelessness have brought it upon themselves, the argument goes.
The message becomes clear: “These people” have all done something to disqualify them from receiving county help.
It’s not just mildly hypocritical and incredibly cruel, it’s a head-in-the-sand approach to a problem that’s not going way unless we do something.
Here’s the thing. Empathy is not all this debate is about. In truth, whether you have compassion for the homeless, or those struggling with addiction, or those dealing with behavioral health issues, the fact remains that these issues are already taking a toll on all of us.
And we’re paying for it — in the least effective way imaginable.
Our communities are impacted by it. Our police and first responders are burdened by it. Our jails and emergency rooms are packed by it.
And we, the taxpayers, are already cutting the check for it — seeing our hard-earned contributions squandered in the process.
Thankfully, should he choose to accept the challenge, there is one lawmaker who can put an end to this backward thinking.
Unfortunately, he’s the same one who proposed the amendment that led to this rant.
Lakewood’s Doug Richardson is the man in the middle. As a Republican, and council chair, he’s the potential swing in most big decisions. And as the only Republican who’s shown the intellectual flexibility to respond in any meaningful way to the county’s behavioral health crisis, by the simple act of voting he has the ability to put the Roaches and McCunes of the world in check.
Richardson could easily join the Republican county executive and Democrats on the council in charting a path forward for the county. The good news is that there’s still time to do the right thing.
The big question: Does he have the guts and gumption to reclaim the moment?