Mentally ill wait as council, executive feud
As a volunteer counselor for families dealing with mental illness, Charlie Mays said he hears repeatedly how people end up in jail because...
Times Snohomish County Reporter
As a volunteer counselor for families dealing with mental illness, Charlie Mays said he hears repeatedly how people end up in jail because they aren't able to get treatment. Their jail stays are often longer as they wait for evaluation and intervention, and they're more likely to reoffend once released because they don't receive ongoing care.
"The number of mentally ill who are jailed instead of hospitalized is incredible," said Mays, a former Lutheran pastor who runs Family-to-Family support groups for the Everett chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
A Snohomish County blue-ribbon commission on criminal justice in January recommended that the county adopt a 1/10th of 1 percent sales-tax increase to fund mental-health and chemical-dependency services.
Almost six months later, little progress has been made as County Executive Aaron Reardon and the County Council argue over who should document the need and develop a plan. A frustrated council is now considering hiring a former human-services director fired by Reardon last year to draft a plan.
"We've put off a decision for a year and a half. It's time to get work done," said Councilman Dave Gossett, chairman of the county Law, Justice and Human Services committee.
The Legislature in 2005 gave counties the authority to enact the tax without a public vote. Eight counties, including King, Island and Skagit, approved the new tax and are using it to fund treatment, housing and court monitoring for the mentally ill and for drug and alcohol abusers.
In February, the Snohomish County Council directed the human-services division to report back with baseline data about the unmet needs, ways to measure results and plans for an oversight committee to ensure that the $10 million to $12 million the county could raise annually through the new tax is effectively used.
Earlier this month, what the council received was a memorandum from Reardon's office saying the council needed to collect more data, develop more detailed plans and demonstrate that the programs will be cost-effective.
"We were told we needed to do exactly what we had asked the executive to do," Gossett said. Deanna Dawson, the county's executive director for law, justice and human services, says the jail has already implemented new treatment programs within the county's existing budget. And if the 1/10th of 1 percent tax were approved, Snohomish would join King County in having a 9 percent sales tax, the state's highest.
Dawson said that before the council enacts a new tax, it should perform the same intensive study and planning that King County undertook before approving the new tax.
"We need to get a handle on the level of need in Snohomish County," Dawson said. To end the standoff, the council is considering hiring Janelle Sgrignoli, the former director of human services fired by Reardon a week before Christmas. Gossett said Sgrignoli, who served seven years as human-services director and 24 years with the county, could draft the plan that the executive failed to provide.
Reardon gave no reasons for dismissing Sgrignoli in December, other than to say he wanted to take the department in a new direction.
But at least one point of disagreement was her support for the new tax. Sgrignoli acknowledges that she publicly supported the tax increase to pay for increased mental health, drug and alcohol services at the same time Reardon, who was running for re-election, reminded voters he had not raised taxes and would set a high bar for new ones.
Social-service advocates in the county believe the need is compelling. A 2006 study by the Snohomish County Jail found that more than 70 percent of those arrested tested positive for drugs and that less than half of inmates needing treatment received any. The current wait for voluntary drug and alcohol treatment in the county is six to eight weeks, Sgrignoli said.
In 2007, Snohomish County spent $3.4 million on mental-health services and $7.3 million on alcohol and drug addiction.
Skagit County adopted the 1/10th of 1 percent tax in 2006 with a minimum of study and planning, said Maile Keliipio-Acoba, director of human services for Skagit County. "We saw a need; we got it done," she said, adding that she's unaware of any taxpayer complaints.
The Snohomish County blue-ribbon commission emphasized the need for early intervention to reach children before they become involved in the criminal-justice system.
About 144,000 youths between the ages of 18 and 24 in the county lack health insurance, according to county figures. With school districts facing their own budget cuts, many have eliminated the intervention specialists who once connected students with drug, alcohol or mental-health services.
Seth Dawson, a lobbyist for 18 social-service agencies, said the majority of children with mental-health issues don't get any help. Dawson, who chaired the blue-ribbon commission, said social-service providers have been waiting since February for the county to draft an action plan.
"We've been patient, but if there's no progress, we'll become more vocal," he said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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