Opinion

So far, so good with new Pierce County executive — now what?

From the Editorial Board

Puyallup Republican Bruce Dammeier exults in early returns on election night in November. He would go on to beat County Councilman Rick Talbert and become the first non-Tacoman installed as Pierce County executive.
Puyallup Republican Bruce Dammeier exults in early returns on election night in November. He would go on to beat County Councilman Rick Talbert and become the first non-Tacoman installed as Pierce County executive. News Tribune file photo, 2016

There’s something gutsy about Bruce Dammeier choosing this Wednesday to deliver his introductory State of the County address, which apparently will mark the first time a Pierce County executive has given the speech favored by presidents, governors and mayors.

By sheer coincidence, Dammeier will go public with his vision for the county on March 15, also known as the Ides of March — a day that any student of Shakespeare knows is associated with dramatic political downfalls, not coming-out parties.

The former state legislator from Puyallup is not famous for making enemies, a la Julius Caesar; rather, he has a reputation as a solid moderate and a level-headed diplomat. But he also doesn’t strike us as the type to be daunted by history or tradition.

Dammeier, the first non-Tacoman to lead Pierce County government and the first Republican to do so in 17 years, campaigned last year as a change agent and has already started shaking up the bureaucracy in just his third month.

His speech Wednesday will preview changes yet to come.

The impression he leaves so far is that he wants to build a first-class staff led by experienced lieutenants, and that he’s smart enough to use both new and old components without regard for party affiliation.

Among the new faces are his top aide, Dan Grimm, who served 12 years as a Democrat in the state House and two terms as state treasurer. Among the old hands are veteran planning director Dennis Hanberg, now the leader of a combined planning and public works department, and trusted budget/finance director Gary Robinson, who now supervises information technology as well.

Dammeier promised lean, efficient government, and voila, four major departments were consolidated into two.

The overhaul doesn’t stop there. In an interview last week with The News Tribune Editorial Board, Dammeier returned often to cliches of his commitment to “turn over rocks” and “move the needle.”

We appreciate the urgency with which he’s helping bring the wrecking ball to Puget Sound Hospital, the too-long-derelict building and squatters lair on Pacific Avenue.

“A community should not have to fear Pierce County being a bad landlord,” he told the ed board Thursday.

The cooperation on that project between Dammeier and County Councilman Rick Talbert, Dammeier’s general election foe last year, bodes well for county leaders’ ability to set aside differences.

The highlight of Wednesday’s speech will be the $8 million supplemental budget proposal Dammeier rolls out for the remainder of 2017. It’s a speck compared to the $300 million general fund budget the council adopted in December, but it’s his first chance to put our money where his mouth is. It contains several ideas worthy of council affirmation.

Fully 75 percent of Dammeier’s proposal is aimed at mental health and homeless programs. What most stands out is the $4.7 million he would put toward an escalating series of mental health investments: two mobile crisis teams, a 16-bed triage center and a past-due pledge to the 120-bed psychiatric hospital that a local alliance of health-care nonprofits and governments plans to build in Central Tacoma.

Dammeier says Pierce County should provide $500,000 this year to the psych hospital — one third of what Tacoma pledged in 2017, but better than the big fat zero previously approved by the County Council.

Kudos to him for trying to fill the breach left by county leaders in December. That’s when the council, in a disappointing 4-3 vote, surrendered another chance to adopt a one-tenth-of-1-percent sales tax increase for mental health and chemical dependency services. Who knows when the opportunity may arise again?

“I am not waiting for the council to act on a mental health tax,” Dammeier said Thursday. “We can’t stand by idly.”

The new Pierce County executive makes other bold promises for his four-year term. Despite his early outreach efforts, it will be challenging to foster ongoing trust with historically wary groups, such as the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

The same is true for county employee unions, most of which have labor contracts expiring this year. We wish Dammeier luck as he bargains with unions while vowing to open negotiations to more public scrutiny.

It’s unclear how he’ll pull together a countywide economic development strategy. And who knows how he will handle the mercurial personality mix on the County Council (hello, Rick Talbert and Pam Roach) as well as entrenched elected administrators over whom he has little control (here’s looking at you, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and Sheriff Paul Pastor).

Only at the end of 2020 will we know how many rocks Dammeier has turned over, and how much he’s truly moved the needle.

State of the County speech

When: Wednesday (March 15), noon.

Where: County-City Building, Courtroom No. 100, 930 Tacoma Ave. S.

Admission: Free and open to the public.

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