San Juan County Council tips its hand on mental health tax

It would appear local mental health services and a notoriously under-insured population of islanders could get a sizable boost beginning next year.

That’s only if, however, last week’s discussion among the San Juan County Council of increasing the sales tax by a penny on every $10 proves an accurate measuring stick.

Still, the odds of a majority of the council backing the increase seemed, at least on Nov. 4, better than good. The council voted without dissent that it would consider enacting the increase, a 1/10th of 1 percent hike, at a Dec. 2 public hearing.

(If approved, the increase would not apply within the town of Friday Harbor, which maintains its own authority over tax increases inside its borders).

Councilman Alan Lichter, Orcas West, believes the increase would benefit the county by reducing the impact on law enforcement, emergency services and the courts. The lack of preventive programs at the front end takes a toll on resources at the back end, he said.

“It’s not only the humane thing to do and the right thing to do,” Lichter said, “it’s a fiscally responsible thing to do.”

Councilman Kevin Ranker, San Juan South, agrees. He noted that he was in the room this past spring when the Whatcom County Council debated a similar increase, and being swayed by the large costs borne by public safety and emergency services’ agencies in that neighboring county.

Of the state’s 39 counties, nine, including Whatcom, Clallam, Island and Skagit, have enacted a mental-health tax increase, which state lawmakers made available to counties three years ago.

“When you look at the raw data of what we’re already paying in law and justice and emergency services, it’s a no-brainer,” Ranker said. “It’s fiscally-conservative and a fiscally responsible thing to do.”

The sales tax in San Juan County, at 7.7 percent, is among the lowest in the state. Only three others, Aostin, Klickitat and Skamania, are lower, according to county Treasurer Jan Sears. Had the increase been in place last year, the county would have collected roughly $350,000.

There are strings attached, however. Though counties have flexibility in the way substance abuse and mental-health treatment may be enhanced or expanded, they must establish a so-called therapeutic court, which would have jurisdiction over cases involving child neglect or abuse.

During the past 16 months, a task force, assembled at the council’s request, surveyed local mental-health providers and professionals as part of a study into the shortfalls that exist in local services. In consultation with those professionals and providers, the task force developed a list of priorities and potential programs, a blueprint of expenditures, and recently held forums on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan islands to gather input from the public about the potential tax increase.

Juvenile Court Administrator Tom Kearney, a member of the task force, noted that among the significant findings of the study is San Juan County, according to the U.S. Census, is in the top five percent nationwide, and No. 1 in the state, in percentage of population under the age of 65 that lacks insurance for mental health treatment. The county spends roughly $80,000 annually on mental-health services.

Despite apparent needs and benefits, several council members hesitated last week in embracing the increase. Though supportive in theory, Councilman Gene Knapp, Orcas East, questioned the timing of a tax increase given that the economy is on shaky ground. Likewise, Councilman Rich Peterson, San Juan North, suggested that the increase be put on the ballot so that voters would have a chance to weigh in on the proposal.

But Councilman Bob Myhr countered that added support for mental-health services may be “more important rather than less important” in the face of an economic downturn.

For info about task force research and findings visit, www.co.san-juan.wa.us/council/councilagenda.