A $1 tax on every $1,000 spent in Benton and Franklin counties could pay for a consolidated crisis response center, Benton and Franklin commissioners were told Monday.
The money also could pay for a mental health court to help divert people into treatment rather than jail and restore some programs lost when state money dried up, bicounty Human Services Administrator Ed Thornbrugh told commissioners.
But the $3.7 million question is whether commissioners will agree to raise the sales tax to pay for mental health services and how voters would react to the idea.
Washington law gives county commissioners authority to raise the local sales tax by 0.1 percent to pay for mental health programs without a vote, but voters in both counties several times have rejected similar tax increases to pay for criminal justice programs, making commissioners reluctant to exercise their power.
Thornbrugh said the tax increase, which would raise sales taxes from 8.3 cents on the dollar to 8.4 cents, would bring in an estimated $3.7 million yearly -- more than enough to cover the bicounty Department of Human Services' most pressing needs.
"This would insulate us from some of the fluctuations in the state budget and allow us to restore some services," he said.
Without the sales tax increase, and with both state and federal money likely to be cut, Thornbrugh fears the human services department will go out of business.
"We may not have any local services if we don't act locally," he said.
Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said he believes the mental health tax is the right thing to do but wants to give voters the option of lowering the sales tax that pays for transit by 0.1 percent so residents break even.
"While I am as hardcore opposed to new taxes as anyone, you're going to find in this county, I've been convinced this is what we need to do," Peck said. "But we have to give voters the option. It's their money."
The five other commissioners were reluctant to agree, with Franklin County's Rick Miller and Benton County's Leo Bowman saying they disliked the idea of essentially moving money from one service to another.
"Robbing Peter to pay Paul seldom works," Bowman said.
He also complained that federal and state governments had forced responsibility for mental health programs onto cities and counties.
"Maybe this isn't politically correct to say, but since when did it become local governments' responsibility to fund mental health?" he said. "The federal and state governments decided it would be their responsibility. ... Now they can no longer afford it, it falls on us. The can is getting kicked to local governments downstream."
One service that could be funded with the 0.1 percent tax, if approved by commissioners, is psychiatric help for people in the two counties' jails experiencing symptoms of mental illnesses.
"We could reduce recidivism by releasing people whose symptoms are better managed," Thornbrugh said.
The money also could pay operating costs for a new crisis response center that would bring bicounty crisis response, alcohol detoxification and substance abuse evaluation programs under one roof.
The center also would give police a "triage center" where they could bring people arrested for behavior related to possible mental illnesses to be evaluated and diverted into treatment if that's deemed more appropriate than jailing them.
The consolidated crisis response center and jail diversion program have been at the top of mental health advocates' wishlist for several years, but the idea has been slow to gain traction as commissioners and human services officials tried to identify the need for a center, what it might look like and most recently what it would cost.
Commissioners hired consulting firm Ron Wright & Associates to produce a cost comparison of renovating the old Benton Franklin Health District building on Canal Drive versus building from scratch.
Wright presented his findings at the Monday meeting -- in a nutshell, it would cost $4.3 million to remodel the Canal Street building to fit the needs of a consolidated crisis response center. Building from scratch would cost $5.1 million.
Either option would cost about $2.9 million per year to operate, compared with the $2.5 million Thornbrugh said is spent on current operations.
In addition, Thornbrugh estimated the human services department would have to pay about $335,000 yearly for construction bonds.
Each set of commissioners agreed to discuss the sales tax further during their separate board meetings.
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; email@example.com