Politics & Government

County Council leaders like what they hear from Dammeier

Pierce County Council leaders saw common ground with new county Executive Bruce Dammeier following his state of the county address Wednesday.

The speech highlighted Dammeier’s priorities, including a proposal for a $10.7 million supplemental budget adjustment, more than half of it targeted toward beefing up local behavioral health services.

“What we saw today was the executive’s priorities align with ours, and that certainly is good for us and for the county going forward. We’re looking forward to being able to work with him,” said county Councilman Rick Talbert, who sought the executive’s seat in last November’s election, won by Dammeier.

“It’s always good when you the council and the executive are headed in the same direction,” said council chairman Doug Richardson.

Relying on a surplus left over from 2016 and better-than-expected revenue projections, Dammeier said his supplemental budget would dedicate $4.7 million to mental health services, without raising taxes.

“More than 29,000 people in Pierce County struggle with serious mental illness,” he said. “To put that in context, that’s 6,000 more people than can fit in the Tacoma Dome. Many of these people end up in jail or hospital emergency rooms — the most expensive and least effective ways for them to get care.”

Dammeier’s behavioral health proposals emerge in the wake of the council’s refusal to pass a countywide sales tax that would have funded mental health and chemical dependency programs. The measure failed in December by a narrow 4-3 vote that failed to reach a required 5-2 majority.

The tax would have raised roughly $10 million in 2017. Dammeier’s proposals represent less than half of that figure.

The centerpiece of Dammeier’s plan would establish two mobile crisis intervention teams working the east and west sides of the county. The teams would operate out of specially equipped vehicles, staffed by emergency technicians and mental-health professionals who can respond to law enforcement calls and assist people in crisis.

“Think of them like behavioral health first responders,” he said.

Dammeier’s behavioral health plan also envisions a 16-bed triage center for patients in crisis, who could seek assistance or, if necessary, be referred to an involuntary treatment center.

Separately, he’s calling on the County Council to contribute $500,000 to a planned 120-bed psychiatric hospital jointly operated by MultiCare and CHI Franciscan. The two entities are moving ahead with plans to construct the hospital on the Allenmore campus in Tacoma in early 2018, and they have sought and received contributions from other local governments in the region. The county remains a holdout.

Council chairman Doug Richardson said members built a budget plan last fall that set aside money for behavioral health services if the proposed sales tax had been approved. A contribution to the MultiCare-Franciscan facility was one of those budget items.

While negotiations and fine-tuning are still ahead, Richardson said Dammeier’s proposal to make the contribution to the behavioral hospital with existing funds could be an easier sell than proposals that would require continued public spending.

“That’s an example of one-time money,” he said. “It’s not an ongoing obligation.”

The rest of Dammeier’s supplemental budget proposals met with similar optimism from Richardson and Talbert, though both cautioned that the seven-member council will have its own ideas.

To combat homelessness, Dammeier outlined a three-point plan:

▪ $250,000 to cover damages and expenses for landlords who open their doors to high-risk renters (in effect, providing damage deposit payments).

▪ $750,000 to assist homeless veterans at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting, including a 12-room facility for female veterans. The facility, refurbished as part of an endeavor known as the Betsy Ross Project, is “move-in ready,” Dammeier said.

▪ Additional money would go toward a shelter in Tacoma’s Salishan neighborhood, aimed at homeless youths ages 12 to 17.

A separate element of Dammeier’s proposal aimed at public safety would dedicate $715,000 to several items. They include a two new sheriff’s deputy positions in the county’s Gig Harbor and Mountain detachments in East Pierce County, as well as additional patrols in the Lake Tapps area.

Dammeier also wants to spend $200,000 on an independent financial assessment of South Sound 911, the county’s regional dispatch consortium. The agency is preparing to build a new dispatch center in Tacoma, approved by voters in 2011.

Richardson and Talbert voiced general solidarity with Dammeier after Wednesday’s speech. His stated priorities are similar to those agreed to by council members during a recent retreat. But they nodded toward inevitable differences of opinion among council members regarding the upcoming budget adjustment.

“I don’t think in every aspect of his budget we’re going to have unanimity,” Richardson said.

The debates won’t start in earnest until March 27, when the council’s Rules Committee will take its first formal look at Dammeier’s proposals.

“It could take three or four weeks,” said Talbert. “Or it could take as long as it takes us to hammer it all out.”