Politics & Government

Pierce County Council decides against advisory vote for mental health tax

The Pierce County Council decided Tuesday it won’t be asking voters — at least for now — if they would raise the sales tax to pay for mental health and chemical dependency services.

Without any discussion, the council voted unanimously to postpone indefinitely a proposal calling for an advisory vote next November on whether the county should raise the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent.

That means Pierce County will remain the only large urban county in Washington that hasn’t adopted the mental health tax authorized by state law.

Councilman Stan Flemming, who originally proposed the non-binding vote, made the motion to postpone his own resolution. It was Flemming’s last regularly scheduled meeting on the council after not winning re-election last month.

Neither Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, nor any of the other six council members commented on their reasons before voting to delay a decision.

After the meeting, Flemming said there weren’t enough “yes” votes.

“There just wasn’t enough support on the council at this time to pass that,” Flemming said. As a result, “it made no sense” to have a debate on it, he said.

Flemming said he was disappointed the public will not have a chance to say whether they support the mental health tax.

They didn’t get a chance to provide input Tuesday, either. Advocates for more mental health services came prepared to speak but never got the opportunity.

Some came with written comments saying that if the council wants to have an advisory vote on the mental health tax, a plan for how the money would be spent needs to be completed first.

With no advisory vote scheduled, don’t expect the council to adopt the tax on its own, Flemming said afterward.

“The idea of passage of a tax now here at the council, I think, is unlikely in the near future,” he said.

Under state law, only a county council or in some cases a city council in a large city has the authority to adopt a sales tax increase specifically for mental health services. And under the county charter, it takes a supermajority of five council members to approve most new taxes or tax increases, including this one.

Putting an advisory vote on the ballot requires a simple majority — support from at least four of seven council members.

Flemming said it became apparent in conversations he had with council members prior to Tuesday’s meeting that his proposal lacked enough support.

Council members were divided between those who oppose the tax outright, those who want to pass it without public input and those who want an advisory ballot to be held first, he said.

Council members Rick Talbert and Connie Ladenburg both support the mental health tax, but said the council isn’t ready to adopt it.

“We need to build the case first,” said Talbert, D-Tacoma.

“It’s just not ready for prime time,” said Ladenburg, D-Tacoma.

The advisory vote would have been put to all Pierce County residents — except those in the Ccty of Tacoma. That’s because the Tacoma City Council in March 2012 already approved adding the sales tax increase for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

The county tax would generate about $8.7 million in 2015, according to the Budget and Finance Department.