Tax hike sought for mental-health care in Walla Walla County

The county will be asked for a .1 percentage point increase.

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WALLA WALLA -- Gaps in Walla Walla's social services are significant and well documented, the head of county human services has said in a letter headed to Walla Walla County's Board of Commissioners.

In an undated letter that will be presented to the commissioners Monday, Daryl Daugs asks them to raise the sales tax one-tenth of one percentage point to help fill those gaps.

"Virtually every report and community initiative has identified two significant shortcomings: Addiction and Recovery Services to our Communities Youth, and Psychiatric Services to the population in general. Over the last (15) years the funding towards prevention and intervention for these two areas has decreased. The combination of funding cuts and increased need in these unprecedented economic times has created a crisis situation," Daugs said in the letter.

The level of mental health services being delivered by his department has increased by 77 percent in the past year. As well, Walla Walla is seeing higher levels of people being jailed, more homelessness among families with children and an increase in the numbers of suicides among both youth and adult populations, Daugs wrote.

"As funding for psychiatric and addiction services decreases ... the need for these very services is expanding."

Currently, the Department of Human Services can only serve Medicaid recipients and veterans, due to slashed state and federal funding, meaning others often find themselves traveling out of town and on long waiting lists.

With a single local psychiatrist treating only adults, children who need psychiatric care have even more barriers to help, Daugs said.

He would like to see a different picture, one in which all county residents -- regardless of income or insurance status -- could get mental heath help.

To accomplish that, Daugs outlined what additional staff will be needed:

Two or more psychiatric nurse practitioners who would work under the direction of the county's psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Varnell. That would allow Varnell to focus on children, adolescents and clients needing the most intensive services.

A substance abuse specialist to provide prevention and recovery services to students and assist in coordinating a community-wide approach to the issue.

Commissioners have the authority to implement a sales tax dedicated for increased human services in Walla Walla County, Daugs said in his letter.

"We fully understand that asking for an increase in revenue, even one as small as this, is daunting in these economic times. This small tax would result in $350,000 to $400,000. Your taxing authority allows you to do this and require that these funds remain local."

After he presents his idea Monday, commissioners will set a date for public comment on the proposal.

The tax can be adopted by ordinance. The earliest date it could be in place is July 1, commission staff said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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