Pierce County executive candidate Bruce Dammeier’s new television ad calls his opponent Rick Talbert a career politician whose salary has been paid by taxpayers for a long time.
It’s a recurring theme for the Puyallup Republican state senator: A vote for him is a vote for change.
“He is in the best position to continue the existing policies. That’s what he knows, that’s what he has been part of,” Dammeier said of Talbert.
Talbert wears his local government experience as a badge of honor. He previously sat on the Tacoma City Council for two terms while working in county government before being elected to the council six years ago.
The Tacoma Democrat says time spent addressing local issues and handling the ramifications of decisions made in Olympia connects him to the people he represents and the problems they face. Talbert holds Dammeier, who spent seven years in the House and Senate, responsible for shirking the state’s responsibility to fund education and mental health services.
“When I see a problem I stand up and address it. When he sees a problem, he looks to somebody else to solve it,” Talbert said. “There is nowhere left to kick the can to once you get to local government.”
The two may tout different leadership approaches, but when it comes to the biggest issues facing the county, the candidates largely agree.
They both think county operations can be made more efficient through better technology, pooled resources and in some cases consolidation. Both support a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to improve mental health services to county residents.
And they agree more sheriff’s deputies are needed to meet demand for public safety although they differ on how to pay for those additional positions.
CONSOLIDATION OF COUNTY SERVICES
Executive Pat McCarthy will leave office in December having failed to accomplish one of her priorities: consolidation of county services into a centralized location.
McCarthy proposed the $127 million general services building to house various departments now spread between multiple buildings, most with expensive leases. The County Council supported the move to build the headquarters at the former Puget Sound Hospital site in Tacoma’s Lincoln District.
Ultimately a citizen referendum last fall dealt a fatal blow to those plans.
Talbert and Dammeier support consolidation, but differ on how to achieve it.
Dammeier said he believes there is room to eliminate some of the leases the county has for office space and to physically consolidate some county departments. But he opposes a bigger consolidation such as the general services building.
Instead of centralizing in Tacoma, the county should be opening more offices in outlying areas like the Key Peninsula, Gig Harbor and far east Pierce County, he said.
Dammeier proposes restoring service to a shuttered sheriff’s precinct on the peninsula and locating county planners at satellite offices. He also wants to see human services located in the communities where people need them.
Another way to save money is through collaboration between departments and greater use of technology, he said.
“Our No. 1 driver should be delivering services to our citizens in the most cost-effective way,” Dammeier said.
Talbert defended McCarthy’s plan to build a central hub for operations in Tacoma, saying it would have saved taxpayers $100 million over 30 years.
“That is still a goal we should be pursuing,” he said.
Pooling resources and stepping up use of technology to streamline operations is achievable immediately, Talbert said. His long-term solution would come once in office after performing an audit of operations.
Talbert also supports opening satellite offices, but suggested the county partner with libraries and schools to use existing gathering places to reach people.
“We could be setting up remote access sites in these facilities for very little cost without having to take on construction of new buildings or adding new staff,” he said.
Talbert also would explore partnering with area cities to offer county services at their facilities, he said.
WHERE THEY STAND ON MENTAL HEALTH
A frequent topic in the race is how to improve mental health services. Pierce County had the lowest number of inpatient beds available for residents needing psychiatric care in the state, according to a recent study completed at the request of the Pierce County Council.
The candidates agree a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase is needed to pay for additional mental health and substance abuse services in the county — including more inpatient beds and wraparound care services.
Both say they would bring together health care providers, residents, nonprofit leaders, mental health and substance abuse professionals, law enforcement and others to identify gaps in service and increase cross-communication between these group.
Each supports a co-responder program where mental health professionals work with law enforcement to identify people who would be better served with referral to a treatment center than a trip to the emergency room or Pierce County Jail.
They also back the 120-bed psychiatric hospital proposed by a partnership of MultiCare Health System and CHI Franciscan Health System, and agree that the county should contribute toward its construction.
Ultimately, the decision to impose the tax rests with the County Council, but the executive candidates say they would push for its passage and to ensure a funding plan is in place before any money is spent.
Where they disagree is the timing of that plan.
Dammeier believes the plan should be clearly explained to the public first, to show how money generated from the tax would be used. It also should be data-driven, he said.
“It’s also about showing them you’re going to use that money well and that it will get better outcomes for the mentally ill and our citizens,” he said.
Talbert wants the County Council to vote on the tax before the end of this year with the plan finished in 2017. He cited work already done by the county’s Community Connections department as the backbone of a plan that would be expanded based on the findings and recommendations of the behavioral health study.
County officials already know the county needs more treatment beds, increased access to care and more resources for sheriff’s deputies to keep people out of jail and emergency rooms, Talbert said.
If the council fails to pass the tax this year, both said they would keep up pressure in 2017 to see it approved.
Talbert would adopt executive McCarthy’s strategy of including the tax in proposed budgets in an attempt to force the council’s hand on the vote.
“If for some reason we’re still in this position next year, I would do the same thing,” Talbert said.
Dammeier doesn’t like that approach.
“I think proposing a budget that is contingent on the passage of the tax is not the best approach,” he said. “The council and citizens deserve a budget that shows how to use the revenues we have.”
If the council won’t approve the tax, “then I think you explore a vote of the people,” Dammeier said.
STEPPING UP LAW ENFORCEMENT
Earlier this year, Sheriff Paul Pastor presented the County Council with a study that showed his department needed a minimum of 40 new patrol deputies with the goal of adding a total of 82 deputies and office staff over five years to meet the demand for service.
Initial estimates indicated it would cost between $9 million and $11 million a year to achieve those staffing levels. The assumption among council and sheriff personnel is the county would have to ask voters for a property tax increase to come up with that much money.
With 80 percent of the county’s general fund already dedicated to public safety “there isn’t anything left to cut from parks and roads and community services,” to pay for more deputies, Talbert said. But he sees the need for the additional positions, and thinks the county should explore whether new taxes are the right move.
“I’ve found when you’re upfront with people and you engage with them, they’re willing to make investments where they believe they are going to get a return,” he said.
Both Talbert and Dammeier say the county could find some of the money by helping grow the economy.
Dammeier agrees more deputies are needed, but has a different approach for how to pay for them.
That includes reducing jail overtime costs and using that money to pay for more deputies; hiring civilians to do the clerical work patrol deputies currently do, allowing them to return to patrol duties; and getting more county department involved in crime prevention.
“That will not be enough, I still think you will have to prioritize the new revenue as our economy picks up,” Dammeier said.