County Council considers behavioral health sales tax


‘One-tenth of 1 percent’ tax amounts to one penny out of every $10

By Matt Nagle

In Washington State, all counties this side of the mountains have passed the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax for behavioral health – all except Pierce County. To change this and bring Pierce County in line with efforts to help those who need it most, County Council members Connie Ladenburg and Derek Young have introduced a one-tenth of 1 percent behavioral health ordinance (Behavioral Health Ordinance 2020-24) for council approval. 

A full council vote on the ordinance will be taken following a public hearing on Tuesday, March 10 at 3 p.m. in the Council chambers. Ladenburg said that she’s dubious of the ordinance passing at this time, as Council member Dave Morrel will be introducing a resolution that asks for the Pierce County Integration and Oversight Board Regional System of Care Committee to work on a strategic plan that states how the tax funds will be efficiently and effectively expended. The committee would then be required to bring that plan back to the council by Oct. 1 and that the council will act on the ordinance no later than Dec. 31, as stated in the resolution.

Ladenburg said that she’s concerned with not passing the ordinance now, as the Department of Revenue has guidelines for when they start collecting taxes based on a vote like this. 

“If we don’t pass it until October, the next time that we can start collecting the tax would be April of next year. Now we’re talking July before we can have that first quarter bit of money and programs may or may not be ready by then so then we’re talking at least 15 months before we can get money out to the community.”

Morell said, “I’ve been very upfront about my position on the ordinance – that Pierce County needs and deserves a strategic plan that shows where the funds are going before we fund behavioral health. This ordinance puts the cart before the horse to pass it and then develop a plan.”

Ladenburg proposed to the Council that it go ahead and pass the ordinance then formulate the plan for expenditures so that money can start coming in now and be held while a specific plan is put in place.

“That was the plan anyway,” she said. “We can write language that says this money cannot be expended until the council is satisfied with a plan. Meanwhile, money continues to get collected but we won’t use it until the plan is in place.”

Morell said that there is no question that he fully supports the objectives behind the ordinance. 

“I voluntarily sit on the Human Services Committee and I’ve been very involved in getting out into the community and listening and learning about behavioral health. I always go back to Pierce County needs socially and fiscally responsible behavioral healthcare. My resolution just puts the horse in front of the cart so that way I can go to my citizens and say here is a transparent, measureable plan to move Pierce County forward in behavioral health.”

Ladenburg is concerned that meanwhile, people in the community will continue to not receive services. “The support (for the ordinance) is huge and for him to say we need a plan…it’s mind-boggling to me and frustrating. I have had every single police chief sign a letter endorsing this because they see a need to get services to people that they’re responding to every day. I’ve had people who work in the behavioral health field testify that we need this and we can only do so much right now. We have about eight school district superintendents that have signed on in support of this.” 

The County Council tried to pass this same sales tax in 2016, but it failed on a 4-3 vote because a supermajority is needed to pass a tax in Pierce County, the only county in the state to have this requirement. Based on sales tax from 2019, this source of revenue would have raised $13.1 million.

Ladenburg said that she is taking action now to bring the tax back to the table because behavioral health issues in Pierce County continue to increase with no sign of abatement.

“Twenty-fourother counties and the City of Tacoma have passed this tax, everyone on this side of the mountain has passed this tax and some counties on the other side of the mountains have too,” Ladenburg said. “And it’s not just Democratic counties. It’s Democratic and Republican, small counties and large counties… The most recent one is Yakima, which is a pretty conservative area but they saw the need to do this. This is the moral thing to do. You have to take care of your people.”


One-tenth of 1 percent amounts to one penny out of every 10 dollars. “How many times do you step over a penny you see on the street?” Ladenburg said to illustrate the low price for improved behavioral heath services in Pierce County. This would average $19.35 per person per year, or $1.61 per person per month. According to the ordinance, the funds would be used in numerous ways. First, the Chemical Dependency Advisory Board would be replaced with a newly created Behavioral Health Coordinating Commission that will provide financial and program oversight, as well as pursue sustainable funding opportunities. 

Investments will be made in behavioral health education, early intervention and prevention; targeted fundingwill be utilized toreduce inpatient hospitalizations such as emergency rooms, jails and emergency responder services; and funds will be used to provide support, training and resourcesto first responders and criminal justice professionals assisting those dealing with a behavioral health crisis. 

In addition, the ordinance will include countywide investment to ensure that all Pierce County residents have the right services at the right time and increase in support for community-based care. It would also foster a network of service providers to meet the behavioral health needs of veterans and service members, and engage and empower those who use behavioral health resources to manage their care. 

The Council will provide oversight and accountability to ensure effectiveness by dedicating a legislative analyst to oversee this work and implementation. Human Services will be a partner in this effort as well. 

“The spirit and intent is to get services to people that are in need of them. That’s the vision,” Ladenburg said. “There are things I keep hearing about in the community – areas where there are no services at all available to the people who live there, outlying areas like Bonnie Lake plateau, Graham, Spanaway, Parkland, Key Peninsula… And then accessing services, which is connected – people just don’t have access to services and a lot of that has to do with geographic equity. Those two things are important to me as far as solutions.”

When considering the need for this one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax, Ladenburg noted that the big increase in behavioral health problems is key. As she noted on her County Council blog, “In the last four years, the behavioral health crisis has only gotten worse. It touches all parts of our communities; our families, our businesses, our schools, our parks and our streets. The mental health conditions of our youth are alarming.”

She said that this hasn’t come to just her attention, but also to the attention of the county’s Human Services Committee of which she and Morrel are both members. “We’ve had various people in front of us reporting that if we had better resources, we’d be able to address these problems.”

A Human Services Research Institute study prepared for the County Council found that one in five people in Pierce County has a mental condition; 11 percent of youth experienced a major depressive episode in the past year (national average 10 percent); 38 percent of 10th-graders felt so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing their usual activities (national average 30 percent); and the suicide rate was at 18.5 percent per 100,000 people (state average 15.4 percent per 100,000). Substance abuse, violent crimes and homicides in Pierce County also outnumber the state average.

“This ordinance has a foundation based on this study, and that was done four years ago. The Human Services Research Institute is well respected by providers who work in the field, so my ordinance is based on that. It’s the foundation you build your plan from,” Ladenburg said.

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