Politics & Government

County exec scores $80,000 van, hopes it helps mentally ill

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier will get his mental-health vans after all — at least one of them.

A four-month debate over local behavioral health funding ended Tuesday with a unanimous vote from the County Council, locking in a supplemental budget that includes about $3 million for services related to behavioral health and homeless programs.

The 6-0 vote represented a legislative victory for council Chairman Doug Richardson, who wrangled support from the council’s conservative and liberal wings.

Behavioral health advocates have questioned the council’s willingness to address increasing homelessness and a lack of mental-health services since late last year. That’s when the council unexpectedly fell short of the votes to pass a countywide behavioral health tax that would have raised $10 million annually.

“I know all the members of the council and I know their interest in taking care of the residents of the county,” Richardson said before Tuesday’s vote. “I believe it’s a demonstrative effort to show our commitment to those priorities in Pierce County.”

I know all the members of the council and I know their interest in taking care of the residents of the county. I believe (the budget is) a demonstrative effort to show our commitment to those priorities in Pierce County.

Doug Richardson, Pierce County Council

Key among the items the council approved is $500,000 for a “Mobile Intervention Response Team” pilot program, or in less formal terms, Dammeier’s van: a rapid-response mental health team on wheels, intended to respond to people in crisis.

The money will pay for an $80,000 vehicle, as well as nurses, mental health professionals and social workers. The idea is based on a similar program in Texas.

A separate $500,000 will go toward similar services provided by Optum, the private entity that contracts with the state to provide mental-health services in Pierce County.

The $3 million approved Tuesday — part of a $12.6 million budget adjustment that also adds a trio of sheriff’s deputies and allocations for economic development — represents less than Dammeier’s initial suggestion of $4.7 million for behavioral health services.

The executive was pleased nonetheless.

“We are eager to begin implementing programs to strengthen and support the behavioral health of our community,” he said in a news release.

Separate line items for female homeless veterans and homeless youth are included in the budget package, but the biggest chunk — $1 million — goes to the Alliance for South Sound Health, a partnership between CHI Franciscan and MultiCare that intends to build a $40 million, 120-bed psychiatric hospital in Tacoma.

The contribution from the county doubles what Dammeier proposed, and some members weren’t entirely happy with it.

Councilman Jim McCune initially proposed cutting it in half, while Councilman Dan Roach offered an amendment that would shift the entire amount to a separate proposal for a 16-bed “diversion center” for people needing crisis services.

McCune ultimately withdrew his amendment, while Roach’s idea failed on a voice vote. Other members said the diversion center, little more than an idea, lacks a site or plan. The budget sets aside $100,000 to study it.

Councilman Rick Talbert called the package “a down payment to invest in our community.”

“We have a model right now that is the least efficient and most expensive.” he said. “This gets us started righting that ship.”

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