Pierce County Council: Why the rush on mental health tax?

The Pierce County Council is way ahead of itself on a proposed mental health tax.

Even the county’s mental health advocates don’t know what the sales tax ought to buy, yet the council is considering locking the measure onto the November 2015 ballot this Tuesday – more than 10 months before the actual election.

The advisory vote might be construed as urgent next July, when the clock will be running out on items for the Nov. 3 election. Right now – the middle of December – it’s about as urgent as a sale on hammocks and beach balls.

The tax in question could ultimately be money very well spent. Anyone who thinks there’s enough care and services for psychiatric patients in Pierce County hasn’t been following the news.

Schizophrenics and other severely ill patients have been getting warehoused in hospital emergency rooms for lack of proper treatment centers. Some public libraries have become day shelters for disturbed street people. Police are constantly being called to nuisance crimes committed by people who wouldn’t get in trouble if they had the right supervision and medication.

Pierce County taxpayers take a huge, direct hit when those petty criminals wind up in jail, where it can cost upward of $200 a night to house and treat them.

The remedy for all this is getting help to people with psychiatric disorders before their illnesses reach the crisis stage. That means connecting them with professionals early and providing them with follow-up care. It may mean helping them find jobs and getting them into stable housing and off the sidewalks.

Pierce County is the state’s outlier in not adopting the tenth-of-a-percent mental health sales tax authorized by the Legislature. Other major urban counties – King, Snohomish, Spokane, Clark – have done so. So has the City of Tacoma.

“It’s the state’s responsibility,” is a common mantra here. But ask state lawmakers about providing more funding for mental health in Pierce County, and they come back with, “Use the tax we already gave you, then we can talk.”

Pierce County won’t be bailed out by the Legislature under any realistic scenario. The state Supreme Court’s mandate for full funding of basic education and this year’s immensely expensive “class size” initiative are going to siphon up any spare dollars in Olympia for years to come.

So unless we’re OK with the appalling rates of untreated mental illness in Pierce County, the mental health tax will be necessary.

What’s not necessary is springing it on the voters before anyone has worked out the details.

Targeting the money wisely will take time. Because it’s a countywide tax, it should meet the needs of the entire county. That will require hearings and community discussions from the Key Peninsula to the feet of Mount Rainier.

Choices must be made. There are many possible ways to address the needs: housing subsidies, for example, and stepped-up early intervention. Smart people will have to come together and craft a package of strategies.

Unless this is done before the advisory vote, the ballot will be asking citizens if they want to buy a pig in a poke. There’s no assurance at this point that voters will have enough details to make an informed choice in November.

Table that resolution, please. It’s half a year too early to put this on the ballot.