Hearing set on possible tax hike in Walla Walla County

The increase was requested to assist mental-health and substance-abuse services in the county.

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WALLA WALLA -- The public will be asked to weigh in this month on a proposed tax hike to aid mental health and substance abuse services.

Walla Walla County commissioners will hold a hearing March 28 to take comments on raising the county sales tax by one-tenth of one percentage point. The money would fund at least two psychiatric nurse practitioners and one substance abuse specialist in the county's Department of Human Services.

Daryl Daugs, county Human Services director, has said funding cuts and increased need for mental health and addiction services during the current economic downturn "has created a crisis situation."

The level of mental health services delivered by the Human Services Department has increased 77 percent in the past year, Daugs said. No local hospitals have a psychiatric unit to hold people who are a danger to themselves or others, so if people have to be detained they need to go to the state mental hospital.

"It's the most expensive way of doing that," Daugs said. "Last weekend we literally called 21 psychiatric wards across the state to try and find a bed instead of a holding cell."

Currently the Department of Human Services can serve only Medicaid recipients and veterans due to cuts in state and federal funding. "One of the goals in some of the services we intend to provide with this tax is to increase our psychiatric care service beyond the Medicaid population," Daugs said.

Another goal is to become proactive in treating people who need help.

"We are looking to get ahead of the game by doing prevention and early intervention work instead of crisis intervention," Daugs said.

If the tax increase is approved, Commissioner Greg Tompkins asked if there will be a way to measure the impact. Daugs said the Human Services Department would "want to be able to do that. We should be able to do that."

The money would also be used only for services, Daugs said. "None of the dollars will go towards bureaucracy."

At present, 15 counties have enacted a sales tax increase to aid mental health and substance abuse treatment, Daugs said. If Walla Walla County enacts the increase and it takes effect by July 1, it would raise between $350,000 to $400,000 this year. That amount would increase to $700,000 to $800,000 in 2012, he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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