Our Voice: Sales tax vote would help improve mental health care

March 7, 2014 

We can't count the number of editorials we've written about the need for better mental health services in our community.

Our jails have increasingly been burdened with people who need mental health treatment more than they do a criminal court system. Often their illness begets their bad behavior, with the cycle continuing its spiral because of a lack of mental health resources.

We're not big fans of jargon but when the Benton County sheriff uses terms like "mission creep" we get it. Sheriff Steve Keane said the jail is evolving from its criminal justice mission to one that also includes mental and medical cases.

With nowhere else to send them, inmates with mental illness are kept at the jail and their conditions are not properly addressed.

"Mental illness is not a crime, and for those individuals, no amount of punishment can cure their medical conditions," said Gordon Bopp of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Washington. "In fact, such practices seriously set back and complicate their pathways to wellness and recovery."

It finally looks as if there is the potential for change for the mentally ill in the criminal justice system here.

Benton County commissioners will let voters decide whether to approve a criminal justice sales tax on the August ballot that would pay for a range of personnel and services, including a mental health court.

Of course, voters here are quick to balk at the idea of any kind of tax increase, so advocates for the issue will need to spend a lot of time on education in the months ahead. The tax would be three-tenths of one percent and would generate $9.2 million per year for 10 years.

For those of you doing the math, remember this is a sales tax, not a property tax. If approved, it would add three pennies to a $10 purchase. And the beauty of a sales tax is that it is borne by more than just our community's residents. Those from outside Benton County who come here to make purchases would help fund the system as well.

Criminal justice taxes are a tough sell and voters rejected the proposal twice already in 2007 and 2008. Franklin County had similar issues before voters finally approved one in 2011.

Many people don't see the need for more cops, but that's looking at the tax with blinders on. Yes, the county would add personnel throughout its criminal justice system. But it would also dedicate a portion the tax to a mental health court program, which would divert select folks into a judicially supervised treatment program.

It would be similar to the drug court system here, which is held up as a model for success, with many graduates remaining sober long after the program ends.

The cities in Benton County would receive 40 percent of the tax revenue. Adding officers to combat nastiness like gangs and drugs would be a priority, focusing on intervention and prevention services.

The tax already has some heavy hitters as honorary co-chairmen for the campaign in favor of its approval, including Bill Lampson, Bill McCurley, Craig Erkes and Kris Watkins. Those opposed to the sales tax believe there are other ways to find the money by cutting costs throughout county departments.

Voters will have to decide if safety in the community and treatment for those afflicted with mental illness and/or drug addiction are worth a few cents on purchases, or whether they'd rather continue paying for repeated jail stays.

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