County levies mental health sales tax hike

Mental health professionals cheered Monday morning when the Island County Commissioners unanimously adopted a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to improve mental health services.

That money, which could bring in an estimated $900,000 to $1 million in 2008, will help fill some glaring holes in mental health services in Island County.

The tax amounts to 10 cents on the purchase of $100 worth of taxable items.

County departments have a list of programs that officials will prioritize. Those programs will help everybody from children to uninsured adults to senior citizens, and lend assistance to people who previously fell through the cracks of the mental health system.

Mental health professionals provide plenty of statistics to back up their case for a tax increase. They say 30 percent of Island County residents have a diagnosed mental illness, while 10 percent of residents don’t have health insurance.

In terms of depression, one in 10 people in the U.S. have that affliction. In local schools approximately 30 percent of 10th and 12th graders said they were severely depressed in the past year.

Commissioners held a public hearing Monday morning to discuss the pros and cons of the tax increase.

The only vocal skeptic was Coupeville resident Richard Bryan who wanted to know how the results will be measured in services created by the new tax.

Commissioner Mike Shelton, a long-time proponent of improving mental health services, said that it would help fund drug courts, which have been successful reaching people struggling with chemical dependency, and reaching students who are dealing with mental health issues.

He added that it would fund programs that would reach people who don’t have any money to pay for such care.

“It offers services to people who are neither Medicaid eligible or have insurance,” Shelton said.

Jackie Henderson, Human Services director for the Island County Health Department, said the tax will also fund services in the jail. When inmates receive help while they are incarcerated, there’s a much better chance they will continue with those services when they get out.

She added the new money will help seniors who are struggling with depression and substance abuse.

The persistent Bryan asked whether there will be another opportunity for taxpayers to comment on the tax, perhaps through a vote.

Shelton said that won’t happen.

“It’s not necessary through the legislation to put this out (to the people) and we don’t intend to,” Shelton said.

Legislation was approved in 2005 allowing counties in Washington to tack on a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to help fund chemical dependency and mental health treatment services.

Officials expressed frustration during the hearing about the current mental health funding provided at the state and federal levels. Often that money goes to programs that have little use in Island County.

“We have little input in how those dollars are spent in the local community,” Shelton said. “We don’t have the opportunity to meet the needs of the community through those . . . dollars.”

Henderson said she has had to return funds the county couldn’t use in its programs.

Other people attending the public hearing generally spoke in favor of the new tax and the services that tax will provide.

Despite voting for the tax, Commissioner Mac McDowell had concerns about using local sales tax dollars to pay for mental health services.

“I think this is a poor way to fund something that affects every county,” McDowell said.

County officials will be busy prioritizing a list of programs that will be funded by the new tax.

On the court side, officials are looking to expand the drug court to make it on par with national standards. There are also plans to develop a new therapeutic court that will help with treatment for parents and families who are involved in substance abuse or mental health problems and are involved in dependency proceedings.

The tax will pay for additional mental health professionals in the four school districts in Island County, a new senior and vulnerable adult outreach program, and expand mental health services in the jail.

The new programs will reach and treat the neediest populations and get them back into mainstream society.

“It just seems the morally right thing to do,” Henderson said.

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