Biennial Budget Priorities for Pierce County
This afternoon Executive Dammeier will kick off the Council’s biennial budget process by introducing his own budget recommendation. Over the next two months, the Council will conduct frequent public meetings establishing its priorities, holding hearings with departments, and finally passing our version on November 23rd.
The priorities you’ll see below are based in part on conversations with my colleagues, but some we haven’t discussed. I’m only speaking on behalf of myself and not the Council, but I wanted to provide some insight into my thinking for this process.
The last 18 months exposed something obvious before the pandemic but had little political support to change. Decades of divestment at the federal, state, and local level left public health in poor shape to prevent the worst. Public health is prevention. Perhaps it’s symbolic of that last point that the agency responsible for public health at the federal level is known as the CDC despite its actual name, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If we don’t increase investment in public health coming out of the pandemic, shame on us. I’m proposing the first significant increase in Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health funding since the Great Recession, from $4.8m to $7.2m, a 49% increase. Even still, it wouldn’t match inflation and population growth since that time.
We also need to do something about the department’s facilities which are a disgrace. The building is decades past its useful life with large amounts of deferred maintenance and designed for clinical care, functionally obsolete. After voters rejected the general administrative building for consolidating county services, the County has moved on to improvements in its facilities. However, without an independent funding source or the ability to bond, the County needs to act on the health department’s behalf.
While it’s hard to predict anything going into a budget cycle, I can almost guarantee we will be making significant investments into housing. Because our increase in population exceeds housing supply, prices have skyrocketed around Puget Sound. That’s causing financial harm and increasing our unhoused population.
I expect that we’ll at least double our commitment to specifically address shelter space which will mean additional congregate settings, tiny homes, safe camping sites, and hotel purchases, but we need to do more.
For the first time in many years, Pierce County will build housing utilizing some mix of federal, state, and local dollars. These projects should be mixed-income, generating income to continue expanding, and include permanent supportive housing for those who need additional support.
Through a combination of bonding, fund balance, federal support, and real estate excise tax, I think we can create a housing fund over $100m.
After 16 years of waiting, Pierce County finally joined other urban counties in Washington, passing the 1/10th of 1% behavioral health sales tax. While there was some previous tentative planning, we’ll get more detailed recommendations at our Special Committee of the Whole on October 19th.
We’re estimating something in the range of $14–15m in revenue (Tacoma excluded because they previously passed it). Priorities for the Council include:
- Therapeutic court expansion — We already have court dockets devoted to mental health, drugs, veterans, and family recovery. All have the same purpose in mind for the unique needs of each case; diverting justice-involved people and helping them recover. They’re wildly successful but underresourced. These are time-intensive dockets and require extensive case management. We should also expand these services into the cities that don’t offer them in their municipal courts.
- Mobile response — Pierce County is a big place, and not everyone has easy access to services. We also need to knock down barriers to treatment and respond to people in crisis. Co-responders work with law enforcement to assist in diversion. Mobile Community Intervention Response Team (MCIRT) is a proactive outreach designed to assist people who need help and transition them into traditional services. Mobile Outreach Crisis Team (MOCT) responds to people experiencing a crisis.
- Substance use treatment capacity — A few years ago, we started the Opioid Task Force to develop strategies combatting the epidemic. Progress has been slow without a steady funding source, and we’ve arguably regressed since the start of COVID. Now we can make investments supporting people through recovery.
- Youth screening — One of the most effective ways to treat mental illness is looking for early signs and beginning treatment before it becomes a crisis.
Traditionally Pierce County hasn’t made significant investments in children and families. That’s true of counties nationally. I think it’s time to change that.
When the Legislature decided to return construction sales tax for transportation projects back to the Transportation Fund, they agreed that it wouldn’t be fair to the Sound Transit area since those funds are raised locally. As a result, the construction sales tax is redirected back to counties to improve educational outcomes for vulnerable children. All told, it will result in about $123m to Pierce County through 2035. It’s an odd source of revenue since it comes in at an uneven pace and then goes away entirely after ST3 is finished, so we’ve struggled with a way to take full advantage of the opportunity.
That’s why I’ll be proposing a resolution committing 25% of all receipts to seed an endowment creating a permanent commitment to children in Pierce County. That commitment should attract additional philanthropic and community support and turn one-time dollars into ongoing operational support.
The policy space where I see the most need is for child care/pre-school. The industry was already in trouble, but COVID put a wrecking ball to what was left. We must increase the supply of quality early learning to improve outcomes for kids and help remove barriers to returning to work for their parents.
But we shouldn’t stop there. Expanding our new Family Connects program provides qualifying families with newborns countywide with a nurse home visit.
Investing early in children and giving families the tools they need to be successful improves outcomes, reduces costs, and provides a better future for all of us.
The amount of deferred maintenance in Pierce County facilities is shocking. Since we’re not moving forward with the general services building, it’s time to start making some progress on that list. Our transportation infrastructure is similarly starved for resources. With construction price inflation far exceeding the historically low-interest rates available, we’ll stretch our dollars further by bonding. We’ll need to research an appropriate and affordable amount, but it’s time to build.