Tax plan sent back for more work

Commissioners asked for a strategic plan related to a requested sales tax increase.

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WALLA WALLA -- A proposed sales tax increase to aid mental health and substance abuse services was sent back for more work Monday.

Walla Walla County commissioners directed Daryl Daugs, head of the county's Human Services Department, to produce a strategic plan showing how money from the tax would be used. The plan is to include a timeline of when the services funded by the tax would come online.

The proposed one-tenth of 1 percentage point increase would raise between $700,000 and $800,000 per year. The money would fund at least two psychiatric nurse practitioners and one substance abuse specialist at the county level.

Commissioner Gregg Loney said he would like to see a "strategic business plan" from the Human Services Department laying out exactly what the actual costs would be for the additional personnel and what would be done with any excess funds raised by the tax.

Commissioner Greg Tompkins said he would like more information on "what's the right way to do this? (Impose a) tax or go back to the Legislature and ask for authority to move funds from 'silos' to where it's needed," referring to different funds within the DHS budget.

In earlier meetings commissioners have noted there is a public perception they have the authority to transfer money from one fund to another within the Human Services budget. However, they said, that is not the case. Money from state and federal sources designated for a particular program or purpose can't be used for something else, despite what local priorities may demand.

Repeating a comment he made earlier, Tompkins asked why the Legislature "gave me enough authority to pass a tax, but decided I'm not smart enough to manage the tax money (they) send me?"

Another issue commissioners wanted more information on was what the cost of collecting the tax would be and whether that would detract from the total going toward actually helping people. "In other words, is the state going to have to hire additional people to get us our money back?" Tompkins said.

Loney, Tompkins and Commissioner Perry Dozier also said they had questions about how people would be referred to the expanded services. Dozier also questioned whether the county could implement the expanded services, and "then decide to implement the tax to continue it."

Loney said his position was that he thought the services are needed, but he wanted to see the accountability issue settled "so I can be satisfied how the money is being spent." He also said if the tax was implemented, "I will tell you up front I'm in favor of a sunset clause," which would require commissioners to either renew the tax at a future date or allow it to expire.

Counties were authorized by the state Legislature in 2005 to enact a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for new or expanded mental health and substance abuse services.

If enacted, the tax increase would amount to 1 cent for each $10 purchase of nonessential goods. Essential items such as food and prescription drugs would be exempt.

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