Pierce County spends bulk of new health tax on provider contracts

Pierce County Council approved its $2.97 billion budget Tuesday at the County-City Building on Tacoma Boulevard.

Pierce County Council approved its $2.97 billion budget Tuesday at the County-City Building on Tacoma Boulevard.

File photo of the News Tribune

Passing one-tenth of the 1 percent Behavioral Health Tax after years of debate, Pierce County Council laid out its first plan for spending the money.

In its biennial budget approved Tuesday night, Pierce County rolled out a two-year spending plan for its new behavioral health sales tax collections. It is estimated that one-tenth of one percent, or a tax cent on every ten dollars, would raise about $14 million annually for the county.

And most of the money will go to mental health and behavioral health providers through contracts for the programs, according to the budget.

Last December, the board unanimously passed the new tax to add support services and resources to behavioral and mental health organizations. The legislation also created a new advisory board to oversee the funds. Tax collection began last July.

This two-year proposal allocates $28 million:

  • $20,880,000 will be released through the competitive bidding process for programs to expand existing wellness, prevention, and early intervention programs; to support new approaches to wellness and prevention that include interventions at early ages; and support for parents at risk and those who care for children with complex behavioral and developmental needs.

  • $2,275,000 for programs currently funded through June 30, 2022, including school services; Youth Prevention Program Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe); joint responders program; ancillary outpatient treatment; and veterans advice.

  • $1,655,000 to develop and deploy a rapid response/alternative response team for those in crisis.

  • $1,305,000 for 5 full-time jobs for employees of a new district court for therapeutic mental health.

  • $1,885,000 for 9 full-time jobs and related administrative costs in Human Services, Appointed Attorney, Attorney General’s Office, and Supreme Court Clerk.

The plan also included a framework for the next six years, including termination of program contracts and frequent audits.

Six hundred and fifty thousand dollars of the $175 million federal COVID-19 earmarked for Pierce County in the U.S. Rescue Plan Act has been earmarked to help remedial courts meet behavioral and mental health needs.

Board Chairman Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor) said he is determined to send a significant allocation of collected taxes to the remedial courts.

“I think remedial courts are the best way to get it [help for] People with mental health challenges and substance abuse. Often these residents don’t have much insight into their struggles,” Young said. “They are really in crisis. So often, the courts are the best way we have for them to get treatment.”

Health statistics collected from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department and the Washington Department of Health depict a larger gap in mental and behavioral services in the county than in the state.

From 2015 to 2019, the death rate from drug overdose in Pierce County was 17.2 per 100,000 people, higher than the state average of 15.3.

In 2019, the state said the suicide rate in Pierce County was 20.1 per 100,000 people, while the state average was 16.4.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that a district have 47 child and adolescent psychiatrists for every 100,000 to meet community mental health needs. In 2018, Pierce County had 6.5 child and adolescent psychiatrists per 100,000, while Washington State had 10.

“We need to make some significant investments to help people in crises and add more proactive communication,” Young said.

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Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County government news for the News Tribune.

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