Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Pierce County Council, mental health system both broken

Just when you think you’ve seen the Pierce County Council reach the very nadir of dysfunction, they go and surprise you by finding a new low.

Tuesday afternoon inside the Pierce County Council Chambers was precisely such an occasion.

This has become business as usual.

A predictable issue was behind this latest meltdown: mental health. Predictable not because working together to plug the troubling gaps in the county’s behavioral health services should bring out the partisan worst in the Pierce County Council, but because, these days, just about anything short of routine busy work does.

The resolution that inspired this latest display of discord was brought forward by Democrats Connie Ladenburg and Derek Young. It called for a comprehensive analysis of the county’s behavioral health systems, an effort that would, among other things, identify flaws and assess the impact and cost of unmet needs.

Anecdotal evidence — overcrowded jails, overstretched emergency rooms and all-too-common stories of untreated mental health heartbreak — are clear indications that something’s not working. On Tuesday, the council took testimony from citizens, service providers, judges, a police chief and the county sheriff detailing their experiences with a broken system.

The proposed study, if ever conducted, would pinpoint where the system is malfunctioning and where improvements can be made. It would also quantify how much money we’re throwing away to operate jails and ERs as de facto psychiatric wards.

All of that sounds sensible, and for a fleeting moment it actually looked like it might pass.

But funny things happen when you get this group of politicians involved, especially on the verge of the 2016 county executive election.

The Pierce County Council had two chances Tuesday to sign off on the study. They failed spectacularly both times.

How?

A last-minute compromise amendment, hammered out by Young and Republican Doug Richardson, would have taken the assessment out of the purview of the Performance Audit Committee and given oversight authority to the full Council.

The amendment met an unexpected demise when Ladenburg and fellow Democrat Rick Talbert balked.

The deal, while flawed and unnecessary, at least had limited Republican support. It could have been viewed as incremental progress, and the amendment could have passed.

But it didn’t.

Then, locked in the same tired quagmire over whose responsibility it is to fund mental health — the state or the county — the council again failed to put aside partisan bickering and sign off on the proposal as drafted. If the council was legitimately concerned with working to curb the suffering in Pierce County, the resolution should have passed.

But it didn’t.

To understand what happened, one needs to comprehend the crippling lack of trust that permeates everything this council does.

When Democrats see a compromise with Republican support that would allow the council, at a later date, to drag its feet or undermine the mental health assessment, they assume election-season politics and ulterior motives are at play.

Meanwhile, when Republicans hear talk of a mental health services assessment, they assume it’s little more than a first step in reigniting the debate over a county sales tax to pay for mental health services.

Maybe the next council retreat should include some trust-building exercises. But do we really think Republican Council Chairman Dan Roach would catch Talbert if he was falling backwards?

Probably not.

The history to this drama is important:

Yes, Pierce County remains 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. Over 20 other counties have — not all of them bleeding-heart liberal bastions. Spokane County has done it. Okanogan County has done it.

And, yes, in 2008, in a staring contest with the state over funding, then-County Executive John Ladenburg and Pierce County got out of the mental health business, making Pierce the only county in Washington that doesn’t administer its own services. Frustrated and petulant, county leaders threw the responsibility back to the lawmakers in Olympia, who, in turn, hired the private company OptumHealth to do the work.

It’s this fateful decision that Republicans on the County Council now shield themselves with when they stump on mental health being the state’s responsibility.

Frankly, it’s growing tired. Funding mental health, for the most part, has always been the state's responsibility. It will continue to be, whether we eventually pay a mental health sales tax or not. But oversight and tracking how that money gets spent was the county's job then, and that hasn’t changed.

The backstory of how we reached this unfortunate juncture matters less and less every day.

What matters is that our elected officials have one job to do: Come together and work for the people of Pierce County. And they just can’t do it.

I’d like to say I expect more from the County Council.

But, at this point, that wouldn’t be entirely truthful.

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