Kitsap County Commissioners aren’t ready yet to support a .01 percent sales tax increase to fund more mental health services in the county. But they aren’t walking away from the idea.
At a meeting last week, commissioners decided that they want to hear more from the public before they make a decision.
“In the next several months we want to do some outreach with community groups so that the public is more aware of what this tax is all about,” said Josh Brown, who represents the Central Kitsap area.
Commissioners will ask the League of Women Voters to host three open houses in August for people to get more information about the proposed sales tax increase.
“Making sure that the public has all the information about this before any action takes place is very important to me,” said Commissioner Rob Gelder, District 1 commissioner.
Following the outreach, the commission plans to host two public hearings in September, one in Port Orchard and one in North Kitsap, prior to the board voting on the issue in October.
The option for the sales tax increase, which doesn’t require a public vote, was passed last year by the State Legislature. Most counties that have enacted the tax have done so without a public vote. Commissioners have already said they don’t want to pay $100,000 to hold a special election on the tax increase. But Brown said they will decide after the public hearings whether commissioners will vote on the tax or whether to put it to a public vote.
“All the counties in the Central Puget Sound area have acted on this without a public vote and certainly we don’t want to spend money on a special election if we don’t need to,” Brown said.
What’s at the heart of the issue is not the need for increase mental health services in Kitsap County, but if the tax is collected just how it will be distributed.
Commissioners want guidelines in place to guarantee that the money has a good return. So they are looking to appoint a committee of professionals and citizens who would set the criteria that will be used to decide which programs are funded and that would review applications from service organizations requesting money. The committee would then recommend to commissioners how to spend the funds. The tax is expected to raise about $3 million annually.
“We want to form a committee that will vet where the funds should be appropriated,” Brown said. “The committee could include those with the technical experience in the mental health field and citizens with a more practical approach to the issue.”
Brown said the guidelines need to include a measurement to determine that the programs that receive funds are making a difference.
“The public needs to see that the funds that are being spend are doing something,” Brown said. “We need to have measurable impacts.”
Commissioner Gelder agreed.
“The challenge will be to create a structure where we can adequately evaluate the investment that is made with this funding,” Gelder said. “I’m supportive of moving forward with this as long as there are measurable outcomes.”
Brown and Gelder also don’t want the program to become an entitlement program where by groups that are funded think the funding will be automatic year-to-year.
“This can’t become some kind of de-facto entitlement thing,” Gelder said. “That doesn’t serve the citizens of this county.”
Neither Gelder or Brown dispute that the extra funding for mental health care is needed.
“A perfect example of that is the county’s drug court,” Brown said. “There is a strong success rate with this program, and yet there’s a waiting list to get in it. We’ve seen that by providing treatment to those who need it, people can turn around their lives and in the long run save taxpayers money with less crime and with reduced time in the criminal justice system.”
“It’s clearly been demonstrated that there is an outstanding need for additional resources in the area of mental health funding,” he said. “What we need to be careful about is that we spend these funds in a way that make an impact. Three million may sound like a lot of money, but if we spread it around to a lot of different programs, will we really have an impact?”
Brown warned, too, that this tax won’t solve all the problems.
“We have to be careful to understand that this tax won’t solve all the mental health funding problems in the county,” he said. “But if we insure that these funds are provided in the most productive manner possible, where they will have the greatest impact, they can get results.”
Scott Linquist, director of the Kitsap Public Health District, said he applauds the commissioners for having transparency in how they are handling the proposed tax.
“There no question that there is a need in the county for more mental health services,” Linquist said. “But as a taxpayer, I would certainly want to know that my money is being spent where it can do the most good and that there is accountability. And I’m not taking about just numbers of people seen. We need to know that the projects that are being funded are making an impact on the health of the people of this county.”
He added that the push to educate taxpayers about the tax prior to a decision is an important aspect.
“Certainly one-tenth of one percent isn’t something that will change people’s buying habits,” he said. “But it’s hard for commissioners to raise taxes. So the education aspect of this is very important to its success.”
Scott Bosch, president and CEO of Harrison Medical Center, said he’s urging the commissioners to take action as soon as possible.
“It’s important to have the public education piece,” he said. “But 19 other counties in the state, including every county around us, have already enacted this tax with just a vote (by their commissions). The need is real. The need is acute. And we’d like to see the commissioners take action.”
Earlier this year, Harrison’s board of directions passed a resolution supporting the sales tax increase for mental health services.
If commissioners decide to take action and approve the tax, it would begin being collected Jan. 1, 2014, and first distributions could come as early as March.