Politics Blog

Bill an opportunity for more Whatcom mental health funds

As the clock gets closer to striking midnight on the state Legislature, and the universe of possible outcomes gets smaller and smaller, one bill has popped up that could make a difference in Whatcom County’s efforts to build a new jail while enhancing its mental health and addiction treatment offerings.

HB 2263, just introduced in the Legislature’s second special session on Thursday, June 4, would give the county the option of raising the sales tax by 0.1 percent for the construction and operation of affordable housing and mental health treatment centers.

Whatcom County could use the money because it is considering at this week’s meeting the creation of a task force that would plan a new, roughly $10 million mental-health and addiction crisis center — everything from the building to the programs that would go in it.

For the new mental-health funding to become available, the County Council would need to pass the sales tax increase. Of course, HB 2263 would need to pass first, or somehow be wrapped into the final budget package. There’s not a lot of time for this to happen; the Legislature must finish before July 1 to avoid a partial state government shutdown.

The bill could be a game changer, given the city of Bellingham’s reluctance to go along with the county’s funding plan for the jail. The plan calls for a countywide public vote in November to create a 0.2 percent sales tax that by state law is earmarked for public health and safety, and criminal justice. Under the same state earmark, the county passed a 0.1 percent sales tax for jail construction in 2004, so the November ballot measure would max out the county’s allowed 0.3 percent for jail purposes.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said at a Bellingham Whatcom Chamber of Commerce lunch last week that she isn’t sure she wants to see all of that 0.3 percent tied up for the 30 years called for in the funding plan.

However, if another 0.1 percent for mental health and affordable housing becomes available — and it would be something either the county or the city could take advantage of — then this could conceivably alleviate the mayor’s concern.

Spokesman Joaquin Uy of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, which supports Democrat-sponsored HB 2263, said it has a real chance of passing. It was written as an add-on to SB 5463, sponsored by Redmond Republican Andy Hill, that would create cultural access programs.

“We feel like it would work out,” said Uy over the phone, less than an hour before HB 2263 was to get a hearing in the House Finance Committee (11 a.m. Monday, June 8).

“Hill’s cultural access bill was bipartisan, and it is very important to his constituents,” Uy said.

Republicans prefer the “local option” approach to taxation, rather than having the state impose a tax increase, Uy said.

There are two sides to that argument.

Council member Ken Mann, interviewed this Monday morning, said he hadn’t heard of the sales tax bill, but it brought to mind statements by others on the council who somewhat resented the state’s fallback to the local option.

While Mann said he likes local control, “There’s a feeling on the part of certain council members ... that the state should just create these things and fund these things, instead of passing along the permission to the county.”

Council Chairman Carl Weimer, acting on his own behalf and not that of the council, wrote a letter dated June 7 to the House Finance Committee supporting HB 2263. (The full text of the bill can be found here. For a detailed summary, click here.)

The letter includes a refrain familiar to those following the jail-mental health issue as it has arisen in Whatcom County over the past few months: The council is planning to build a new, 521-bed jail in south Ferndale but wants to make sure that alongside that effort is a push to open a new crisis center no later than when the jail opens its doors.

“This commitment stems from our belief that mental health programs and housing can produce a more humane and cost effective alternative to costly incarceration of people who would be better served by programs that help prevent and divert them from costly jail and emergency medical services,” Weimer wrote.

Council is scheduled to make three key votes on the jail-mental health issue at its 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 9 meeting: putting a 0.2 percent sales tax hike on the November ballot, to repay a bond for the $97 million jail construction; approving a jail financing agreement with the county’s seven cities; and creating the task force for the crisis center.

Bellingham has not yet approved the jail agreement. Officials there have said they are waiting to see what the County Council does with it.

I asked Mann, who has consistently criticized the jail proposal for not giving enough consideration to diversion programs, to predict what will happen with Tuesday night’s votes.

He said he doesn’t think the vote will happen Tuesday, “with the amount of good questions and substantive questions that keep trickling in with a $120 million project —and I have a question about the wording of the proposition.” (Mann’s dollar figure includes the cost of the 39-acre property where the jail will be built, and the new Sheriff’s Office that will go alongside the jail. These are not included in what voters will be asked to finance.)

Council often spends time in a morning or afternoon committee session on meeting days getting questions answered or making changes so a new ordinance or resolution is all ready for the evening vote. For the three jail items, council decided it had done enough discussing and should send the matters directly to the evening meeting.

But for Mann, the uncertainty around the jail-mental health package is too great, especially around what the Bellingham Council might do with it.

“I think there’s a less than 50 percent chance (the jail bond measure) makes it to the ballot,” Mann said. “Even if it makes it to the ballot, I think there’s a less than 30 percent chance it passes.”