Rebuilding Pierce County
How we can ensure a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future for all
We face daunting but not insurmountable challenges. While the COVID-19 pandemic created many of its own problems, it also uncovered mutually reinforcing system failures left by years of neglect. To ensure South Sound’s recovery, we need a county government working strategically on seven key issues.
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic must continue to be our top priority. Too many politicians haven’t taken this seriously, and Pierce County has suffered from that lack of leadership along with the rest of the country. We should trust public health experts, ensure they have ample funding to implement a science-based strategy, clearly communicate with the public, and not let politics interfere.
Even before COVID-19, Pierce County’s behavioral health outcomes were far worse than our peers around Washington and in the lower ranks nationwide. Over 15 years ago, the Legislature responded to cuts in federal funding, pushed responsibility for behavioral health services mostly to counties along with a .1% local sales tax option. Since then, 22 of Washington’s 39 counties have passed it, including every Western Washington county — all except for Pierce.
While we’ve begun making some small investments in pilot programs to support people in crisis, we don’t have the resources necessary to reach enough people in need across the county.
The COVID-19 pandemic kicked off a recession the likes of which we haven’t seen in 90 years, but Pierce County was already in trouble. Unlike our peers, which have benefitted from astonishing growth in the technology and manufacturing sectors, Pierce County has struggled with comparatively higher unemployment and lower wages.
We need to rebuild from the foundation up, investing in education and skills, infrastructure, and high-speed broadband. We’ve suffered from politicians’ short-term thinking for years when we needed a long-range vision for growth opportunities.
While we recover from this economic catastrophe, we have to do everything we can to stabilize families who are suffering. COVID-19 has exposed a safety net in tatters. When bad things happen, we shouldn’t let people fall so far. In recent years, the County dedicated just 2–3% of the General Fund to human services. When we fail to invest in our neighbors in need, their problems compound, growing more costly and dire.
We should invest in our families by supporting affordable childcare and family services. Far too many of our neighbors were already unhoused, and we expect that need to grow substantially. With one of the country’s largest veteran populations, we should do more to support the unique needs of those that served.
Across the country and here in our communities, people are crying out for reforms in our public safety and justice systems. We must protect the public from crime, but without services for people in need, we often expect law enforcement to become social workers and crisis counselors.
Outside of Western State Hospital, the second-largest provider of behavioral health services in Pierce County is the Sheriff’s Department Corrections Bureau. The cost of providing permanent supportive housing for people with serious mental illness or substance use disorders is substantially lower and far more effective than the revolving door at the jail and courthouse.
Pierce County has the highest crime rate in Washington. Each year we have more felony filings than King County with less than half of the judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. We need to continue to find alternatives to incarceration to save room for those who are a danger to the public. With the highest rates of domestic violence and child abuse and neglect, we should invest more to protect the vulnerable.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only major crisis leaders at every level of government must confront. Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it’s already here, and the costs are mounting. With forests burning, glaciers melting, and rivers flooding, Pierce County residents know the stakes. The science is clear, and we need leaders who will use it to enact policies that will respond to the threat and mitigate the damage.
In Pierce County, we identify strongly with Puget Sound. As a resource and for recreation, there are few places like it. But beneath that beauty, life is struggling. If we don’t want to be the last generation to see keystone species like salmon and resident orcas, we must do more to protect this precious resource — our Sound.
Growth and Transportation Planning
We know more people and jobs are coming to our region. We can build healthy, sustainable communities while protecting rural working and wildlands — or continue decades of sprawl. For years Pierce County has pushed back against smart growth. That means higher taxes, worse services, and more time spent sitting in traffic than with our families. It’s time for a new approach.
Pierce County can’t continue paving its way to the mountain. We must embrace a regional strategy focusing growth near access to high capacity transit, jobs, and services.
On the spectrum of education needs, county government should focus at the beginning and end. We need to help all families access early childhood education, provide resources for new parents and support systems for low-income families.
Too many children show up to class with a backpack full of trauma and unmet needs. We should partner closely with our schools to ensure our scholars and their families have the services they need for success.
Pierce County has lagged behind our peers in job attainment and wages for years. COVID also did more economic harm here than almost any other part of our state. To grow our way into recovery, we need a robust strategy to build a skilled workforce. The County should work hand-in-hand with our unions, community colleges, and trade schools to prepare those students for a career in a living wage job right here in Pierce County.