taxes and services
1:04 pm
Tue March 20, 2012

Sales tax boost would create safety net for mentally ill

If you live anywhere in the Puget Sound region you probably pay a small sales tax to support mental health services. The main exception is in Pierce County.

That may change, at least within Tacoma city limits.

A proposal in front of the Tacoma City Council would raise the sales tax by 1/10th of a percent, or a penny per $10 purchase. That’s the same as residents pay in King, Snohomish, Thurston and many other counties. The revenue would be dedicated to a broad array of services to assist people with serious mental illness or drug abuse problems.

In fact, 19 of Washington’s 39 counties have the sales tax for mental health services. Those taxes were approved several years ago, after the state legislature in 2005 gave permission. One popular argument in favor – it would save governments money if people could get treatment instead of ending up in county jails or emergency rooms.

But the Pierce County Council has twice rejected such proposals, most recently in 2009. Some council-members say the sales tax burden is already too high. Others have a long-running feud with the state legislature, arguing mental health costs are a state responsiblity.

The legislature granted cities in Pierce County the ability to bypass the county council, and Tacoma may become the first to take that leap.

An extra incentive allows the new taxes to partially offset city budget cuts. Tacoma is wrestling with a general fund deficit, and some mental health services could be cut.

“We could ensure that we can continue to fund those services, through the use of this tax, as well as be able expand and add new services within the city, to serve a need we know is there,” says community relations director Rob McNair-Huff.

The tax would bring in about $2.6 million per year, half of which would go to new services, according to the city. The city council could vote on the measure as soon as Tuesday evening, with the tax taking effect in July.

This comes at a time when advocates say the need for services has never been greater. Al Ratcliffe, a psychologist and member of Tacoma’s Human Services Commission, says he sees people with severe mental illness or drug addiction falling through the cracks:

“There are many homeless people who do not qualify for Medicaid, and Medicaid is the primary resource for community mental health services these days,” he says.

One program that could get funding targets homeless youth who repeatedly get in trouble with the law.

But the details of how the money would be spent haven’t been worked out – which has drawn some criticism. That's a contrast to counties where the tax has already been approved, which typically held meetings and listed spending priorities before imposing the tax.