Matt Driscoll

County executive’s new ideas might help break gridlock over behavioral-health crisis

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, seen here on election night 2016, is bringing much-needed new ideas about dealing with the county’s behavioral-health crisis, writes News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll.
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, seen here on election night 2016, is bringing much-needed new ideas about dealing with the county’s behavioral-health crisis, writes News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll.


That’s the most accurate way to describe the impasse of county government in the past few years when it comes to addressing a growing behavioral-health and homelessness crisis in Pierce County.

There’s been hemming. There’s been hawing. There have been frequent acknowledgments of the problem — at least from Democrats on the County Council — but no real progress to show for it.

All the while, the problems have gotten worse. Repeated (and needed) attempts to pass a one-tenth of 1 percent sales-tax increase to fund behavioral health have gone down in flames, and it’s often been difficult to envision things ever getting better.

Enter new County Executive Bruce Dammeier in January.

Good luck with that, Bruce.

But here’s what’s becoming clear: After nearly 10 months on the job, the Puyallup Republican — the first Republican to hold the seat in nearly two decades — might be exactly what Pierce County’s behavioral-health crisis needed.

Though it’s early, and though it might seem unlikely given the way some county council Republicans have bogged down county government in recent years, Dammeier has shown a propensity for confronting the problem with clear eyes and new ideas.

The latest example of Dammeier’s approach comes in the form of his 2018 proposed budget.

Released on Tuesday, the budget has a number of potential investments worth applauding.

Dammeier’s proposed spending plan increases funding to help address homelessness to $14.8 million, with an acknowledgment of the need for “regional solutions.” That last part is stating the obvious, of course, but since the county has essentially shirked its responsibility to the region for some time, it’s worth acknowledging.

The budget proposal provides funding for what the county is calling a new Homeless Empowerment Labor Program (or HELP). The plan comes via Don Anderson, senior counsel to Dammeier, who spent time in Albuquerque, New Mexico, observing a similar program. The straightforward idea is to create day-labor opportunities for individuals experiencing homelessness as an avenue to help them escape it.

There’s $4.4 million earmarked for the expansion of behavioral-health crisis response and diversion programs, including the important inclusion of a new 16-bed diversion center to be opened near Spanaway.

Currently, the county’s only diversion center is in Fife. As the name implies, the facility’s purpose is to help divert those suffering from mental health problems away from jail. But because it’s frequently full, and stuck in the far corner of the county, another facility is needed.

The best example of how Dammeier’s fresh approach to problem-solving could pay dividends for the county, however, can be found in the county’s recent application for nearly $3 million over the next two years. The money is available because of what’s known as the Trueblood case.

In 2015, a federal judge imposed a seven-day deadline on the state to admit patients for competency treatment. The decision was in response to a failing statewide mental health system that too often kept criminal defendants waiting in jail for weeks and even months pending psychiatric evaluations.

The state’s struggle to comply with that decision has resulted in millions of dollars in contempt-of-court fines. A subsequent ruling made that money available to local jurisdictions that present a plan to address the backlog.

Arguing that Pierce County is responsible for a substantial number of these cases, Dammeier is seeking to tap into the fund in hopes of paying for a handful of new positions throughout the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and judiciary. All the new positions would be explicitly tasked with working to increase diversion options for criminal defendants stuck in a broken system.

It would be a small step in the right direction. But for a county government with a history of inaction and infighting, even a small step can mark a major accomplishment.

Even more, from Dammeier and county staff it represents a kind of fresh thinking that’s been desperately needed around these parts. For far too long we’ve been stuck in the same arguments, with nothing to show for it except frayed political feelings and negatively affected lives in the real world.

“You’ve got to find the path to yes,” Dammeier explained of his mindset. “If you know what to do, find a way to get there. Don’t let the people who will say ‘no’ stop you. That’s what we’ve been working to do. We are trying different things. We are trying different approaches.”

For that, the county exec deserves credit.