Tax hike OK'd for mental-health services

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WALLA WALLA -- This week, Walla Walla County commissioners took an issue off the table that's been on their plate for the better part of a year.

On Monday, Perry Dozier, Gregg Loney and Greg Tompkins voted unanimously to authorize a 0.1 percent sales and use tax to help pay for mental-health and chemical-dependency treatment and services in the county.

It's a concept first presented to the board in early March by Department of Human Services Director Daryl Daugs as a way to mitigate the impending crisis coming from reduced state and federal mental-health dollars.

On March 26, people had a chance to give pros-and-cons input on the idea in a public forum before commissioners. The board and Daugs also received numerous phone calls and letters about the matter.

Fifteen other counties in Washington have used a state law since 2005 to augment shrinking Medicaid dollars and to reduce incarceration of mentally-ill patients, Daugs told commissioners at the time.

Legally, money raised in such fashion can only be used for the original purpose, he said.

A final decision on the matter has been delayed several times, board Chairman Perry Dozier said this morning. "We were hoping for better economic times before we imposed a sales tax increase."

That hasn't happened, however, and information from local social service agencies helped commissioners see the "profound" need for action, he saud. "There are a lot of outside costs that people don't see. These folks end up in jail or the emergency room and that costs everyone a lot of money."

Add in the foreshadowing of diminished state dollars and it was clear some treatment programs were going to go away, Dozier said. "That problem weighed heavily on our decision."

Yet he, Tompkins and Loney had no set-in-stone answer going into Monday's meeting, Dozier said. "It was still very much in the air."

Although the board was not taking more public testimony on the proposed sales tax increase, Tompkins asked for a show of hands from both supporters and those opposed to the action. There was no hand raised for delaying the decision or denying implementation, Dozier said.

Throughout the year, the three commissioners sent Daugs back to the drawing board time and time again, asking the department head for a complete business plan on how the money will be used and clarification on a number of points. Daugs was responsible for designing accountability and the review process for money spent.

"He did a heckuva job," Dozier said. "Each time we delayed it, you could almost feel the wind get knocked out of him."

In the end, his initial reaction to the idea stayed firm, he said. "A year ago I was pretty confident of my position. At that point it sounded like something that was very needed."

Today even more so, Daugs said today. A notice from the state government Friday outlined upcoming budget cuts in the next few years that will likely eliminate many of the basic services people need.

Not only will Washington's basic Health Plan for "working poor" families dissipate, but prescription drug coverage for Medicaid-dependant adults is on the chopping block, Daugs said. "And the very, very scary thing about that is that we have people who can only be safe in society, both to themselves and others, because of the prescription medications they take. And that coverage is going to be eliminated."

Daugs was "pleasantly surprised" at the commissioners' decision Monday, he said, adding that the plan has a five-year sunset clause.

His department will be accountable for regular reporting of how the money is being used and its impact. "One of the big things about this is this is local funding with complete local control. The county will be able to direct funding to areas that the state limited our ability to respond to, such as prevention and early intervention."

The sales tax increase will begin Jan. 1 and is projected to add about $725,000 to DHS's 2012 budget for services.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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