Sales Tax Proposed to Expand Health Services

Pierce County remains the only county in Western Washington without a portion of sales tax allocated to fund treatment for behavioral health problems.


Pierce County Council Members Derek Young and Connie Ladenburg will propose a .01 percent sales tax to fund behavioral health and substance abuse treatment programs to the full council March 10.

“We are a significant outlier compared to every other county on pretty much every measure relating to behavioral health from hospitalizations to suicide rates and obviously interactions with homeless,” Young said. “This is a way we can take action. Otherwise we just don’t have the funding.”

This mechanism to augment state funding — a sales tax of one-thousandth of a cent — was approved by the state Legislature in 2005. Currently 29 of Washington’s 34 counties use it. Pierce County is the only urban county in the state and the only county in western Washington that does not. Tacoma has already approved the tax and is not included in the proposed ordinance.

The tax, which could be implemented as soon as July, would cost consumers one cent per ten dollars, an average of $19.35 per person each year. It is expected to raise $13.1 million annually. Young said it would take about three months for money to reach county coffers.

Five years ago, the county council hired the Human Services Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization, to evaluate the behavioral health system in Pierce County. Their findings and recommendations were presented in 2016. A sales tax proposal made at the time to fund the recommendations narrowly failed with four of seven county council members supporting the ordinance. A supermajority of five is required for an ordinance of this kind to pass.

An update from HSRI in 2018 stated: “The county has made significant improvements in its behavioral health system. Yet some gaps remain unfilled, and some challenges have persisted.”

According to the report, the demand for behavioral health services in Pierce County far exceeded current supply. Behavioral health workforce shortages coupled with a lack of affordable housing for people with behavioral health issues continued to pose significant challenges, causing concern about ensuring the complex needs of people with significant behavioral health conditions were met. The report emphasized that any plan should include a central coordinating body to oversee efforts and eliminate silos separating services.

“There just isn’t another adequate source of revenue to provide these services,” Young said. “We don’t really have a choice.”

The current proposal will create a 16-member Behavioral Health Coordinating Committee. Members will represent nearly all entities interacting with those who need services including staff from the sheriff’s department, the court system, the health department, service providers, and representatives from Lakewood, Puyallup and other county regions.

Revenue will go to the newly established Behavioral Health and Therapeutic Courts Fund. Funding would focus on decreasing hospitalizations, adding training and resources for those on the front line dealing with people in crisis, increased support for community-based care and fostering a network of service providers.

Young and Ladenburg said the coordinating committee, which will be under the direct supervision of the county council, would be formed quickly to establish an action plan. They anticipate program implementation could start in early 2021.

“Some of the plan, like expansion of existing services, will be implemented pretty quickly. New programs which will require service providers and contract negotiations may take longer,” Young said.

Both Ladenburg and Young emphasized that the plan will include all of Pierce County, and specifically mentioned the Key Peninsula, Graham and Buckley as being underserved.

“One important aspect is that the city of Tacoma has done this already, so services are concentrated in Tacoma,” Young said. “One of my priorities is to make sure others in the county, like the KP, have access to services as well. We know from talking to families, providers and patients that access on this side of the bridge is really important.”

Young and Ladenburg are hopeful that they have the votes to pass the ordinance. They are currently reaching out to fellow members to be sure they can address any concerns and questions.

The Pierce County Council meeting March 10 is open for testimony and begins at 3 p.m. in the council chambers at the Pierce County Building. Testimony may also be submitted online.