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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

‘Mental health’ tax considered

Increasing the sales tax rate across Spokane County could help keep mental health services afloat, but county commissioners are leery of pursuing that course without first hearing from voters.

Commissioners are expected to decide Thursday whether to call for a November advisory vote on the issue even though they have the authority to boost the rate 0.1 percent themselves.

The increase would raise about $6.5 million a year for the next five years, said county CEO Marshall Farnell.

That’s not enough to fill the entire mental health funding gap, Farnell said. And it wouldn’t prevent upcoming cuts since the tax couldn’t be collected until April 2006.

The money could be used, however, to rebuild some lost services, fund new mental health programs and to match federal grant dollars for children’s mental health initiatives.

County officials say they are facing a $7 million shortfall in mental health funding due to federal Medicaid cuts coupled with inadequate state assistance.

Because of that funding gap, Spokane Mental Health will lay off a fifth of its work force by the end of the month and programs are being eliminated or scaled back at Lutheran Community Services, Catholic Charities and other local mental health providers.

Friday is the latest the advisory ballot measure can be submitted to the Spokane County auditor for the upcoming general election.

Commissioners don’t need voter approval, however, to initiate the tax increase. It was authorized earlier this year by the Washington Legislature.

“As we’ve been working with the state to point out the financial dilemma we’re in, one of their first comments is, ‘Why don’t you take advantage of the authority the Legislature has already given you?’ ” said Commissioner Todd Mielke.

The proposed tax increase comes as local governments are tapping citizens for more and more money.

The city of Spokane will ask voters in November to raise the city’s levy to provide $3.3 million more in property taxes. With or without that increase Spokane officials may also raise the city’s utility tax, a move that can be done without voter approval.

If approved by the commissioners, the sales tax increase for mental health would be the third Spokane County sales tax jump in the past two years, boosting the rate in most of the county to 8.6 percent. That would be one of the highest rates in the state, matched or exceeded only by parts of King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Before voters approved the 0.3 percent Spokane Transit Authority and 0.1 percent criminal justice sales tax increases last year, most of Spokane County was taxed at a rate of 8.1 percent. Together those two tax increases have added $4 in taxes to a $1,000 purchase.

In addition to contemplating the tax increase, commissioners also are planning to audit the county’s mental health programs and examine its priorities, Mielke said.

Mielke said that while commissioners can implement the sales tax increase for mental health without voter approval, that’s unlikely.

“If there is a clear message sent from the public that this isn’t a priority, I would have a difficult time imposing it without community support,” he said.

But Mielke emphasized the repercussions of such a decision, which he said would amount to abandoning county residents who need help.

“The vote gives us the chance to make sure we’re hearing from the entire community, and it gives people impacted a chance to educate the public about the need,” he said.

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