Matt Driscoll

County Council deserves a pat on the back, and then another kick in the rear

Volunteer Shirley McLaughlin interviews Ryan Degood of Parkland as Adriana Krieger of Tacoma waits in a muddy encampment in Parkland. McLaughlin was helping with the 2013 Pierce County Homeless Survey.
Volunteer Shirley McLaughlin interviews Ryan Degood of Parkland as Adriana Krieger of Tacoma waits in a muddy encampment in Parkland. McLaughlin was helping with the 2013 Pierce County Homeless Survey. Staff file/2013

The bar is pretty low.

At this point, any new investment the Pierce County Council makes in behavioral health and homeless programs — no matter how small — is a victory worth commemorating.

Because they haven’t come often. The history of inaction and straight-up neglect is long and well-documented.

On June 20, when the council unanimously supported a supplemental budget that includes about $3 million for behavioral health and homelessness initiatives, it represented a small but necessary step in the right direction.

So, good job, County Council.

Now, get back to work.

There’s plenty to do. Our county’s residents desperately need and deserve a sustained effort to fund and implement behavioral health and homelessness programs.

Council member Rick Talbert was right when he called the $3 million “a down payment to invest in our community.”

For perspective, the $3 million is a far cry from the estimated $10 million that a countywide behavioral health sales tax would have generated. Sadly, that idea appears all but dead for the foreseeable future.

In some important ways, the appropriation also comes up short of the one-time $4.7 million County Executive Bruce Dammeier initially proposed spending (though, to be fair, this point can be debated.)

What we need from this point forward is far less studying and stalling, far less hemming and hawing, and more action and ideas from those who’ve so far been content to simply say what won’t work.

What we need is for all members of the council — on both sides of the aisle — to acknowledge the extent of the crisis the county finds itself in. Then they must admit things aren’t going to improve unless they do something — even if we’re not completely sure that something will work.

And, if a behavioral health tax isn’t in the cards, they need to figure out how to pay for a solution.

If we’re lucky, what we saw June 20 is a sign the council is moving in the right direction.

I never think politicians deserve a pat on the back for doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I hope this is a good sign that we can be a functional (governing) body and set apart partisan differences.

Gig Harbor County Councilman Derek Young

The biggest ticket item — and what many of our elected officials believe will provide the biggest bang for the buck — is the $1 million that will go toward the partnership between CHI Franciscan and MultiCare to build a 120-bed psychiatric hospital in Tacoma.

While the deal feels a little like a well-heeled nonprofit getting exclusive rights to build a lemonade stand in the desert — and then asking the thirsty to help pay for it — the hospital is an unquestionable need.

The county’s contribution would be worth it if it helps our area get the type of facility it deserves.

The supplemental budget also includes money for one of the two “Mobile Intervention Response Teams” that Dammeier proposed back in March. The team will be staffed by nurses, mental health professionals and social workers and operate from an $80,000 van.

The program, which initially will operate as a pilot project, is based on a similar one in Bexar County, Texas. The idea is to get help to people suffering from chronic behavioral health issues — many of them homeless — before they end up in our jails or emergency rooms.

Considering the fact that it looked like these vans might be axed from the budget altogether, it’s encouraging to see even one included.

The supplemental budget also includes money for two “co-responders” — behavioral health specialists who could accompany law enforcement officers on calls. They’d be trained in de-escalation techniques, among other things, and provide valuable assistance to cops throughout the county who too often are forced to deal with people suffering a mental health crisis.

The appropriation also dedicates $100,000 to evaluate the potential of a behavioral health diversion center.

Dammeier initially called for $2.7 million to fund just such a center, so I’ll admit that a move to simply evaluate the idea now feels anticlimactic and like more of the same.

Still, given the fact that there’s no location for it yet, I get it. Council members have promised that they’re dedicated to the idea once a suitable site is found, and I suggest we hold them to it.

Councilman Derek Young summed up the Council’s work this way:

“I never think politicians deserve a pat on the back for doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I hope this is a good sign that we can be a functional (governing) body and set apart partisan differences. Good things have a tendency to build up some steam. Maybe we can expect more from this council.”

Let’s hope so.

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