Sunday, May 19, 2013

Whatcom County Mental Health - A Back Story

Anne Deacon provides an overview of mental health services in Whatcom County in the Bellingham Herald (Whatcom County Mental Health).

Federal support, and certainly in recent years state support, for mental illness has slipped. Talk to the folks that run our jails and what you'll hear is that the largest mental health facilities are the jails. The back up plan for dealing with the mentally ill has become the local county jail. The jail costs are just one cost aspect of not dealing with the mentally ill.

It was understanding that not funding programs to address mental illness caused excessive costs elsewhere that led then County Council person Laurie Caskey-Schreiber to bring forward a proposal for a local sales tax to ensure funding of mental health programs in 2009. Laurie had been on the council long enough to know that competing interests combined with continued cut backs from the State were far from optimal, that a sales tax increase would never ever be brought forward by then County Executive Pete Kremen and that getting funding from existing county revenue was very unlikely in the budget process.

I have been part of or witnessed plenty of dramatic votes on the County Council, but this one ranks perhaps as the most dramatic. In part, it is because the vote had such lasting consequences. Perhaps not a now-or-never-vote, but it was clear to me that if it got voted down, it would be on the order of a decade before it would be considered again.

Another aspect of this particular Council vote was that the Council meeting was packed with citizens very strongly in favor. A nice break from the usual long contentious land use/planning battles that have so dominated Whatcom County politics.

As this was an Ordinance, the vote was a role call vote - that is the Clerk would call a council persons name and they would vote yes or no. I do not remember the exact order, but everyone knew this was going to be close vote. It was a given that Laurie would vote yes and it was assumed that Seth Fleetwood and Carl Weimer would vote yes. That meant one of the other 4 council members would be needed to support it: Barbara Brenner, Sam Crawford, Bob Kelly, or Ward Nelson - all four with strong fiscal conservative credentials.

Barbara Brenner was already known to be opposed - she gets a bit rabid over just about any issue so it was easy to predict. She also opposes taxes and consistently believes we can fund everything if only we would not fund other things. A little commentary - BB's grasp of budget matters is not her strength.

There was hope that Ward Nelson would be supportive. He has been perceived as a moderate and sensible guy and he does get county budget matters probably as well as anyone. However, Ward disappointed the crowd; he could not overcome his consistent anti tax increase record.

That left the matter to Bob Kelly or Sam Crawford. Bob and Sam had a bit of fun with each other on this vote. When their names were called they both deferred their vote for later, a bit unusual, but a play at getting to be the deciding vote. Sam Crawford actually deferred twice in order to force Bob Kelly to play his hand. Kelly then voted no. He had been on the fence and Crawford likely wanted to watch him jump or Kelly wanted to put the whole matter on Crawford.

That left Sam Crawford, a conservative Republican. Like Ward Nelson, Crawford has a good grasp of county finances and governance in general. But unlike Ward Nelson, he was able to step away from his tribal alignment of no new taxes ever and voted yes.  

1 comment:

Misty Dawn said...

I just visited a friend in the Whatcom County Jail and he told me he was appalled at the treatment of a schizophrenic inmate there. My friend has had some troubles, but is educated and articulate and his assessment of the situation was grim. The man he spoke of was in solitary confinement because the other inmates couldn't be trusted not to harm him due to his erratic behavior (he was mostly talking and laughing to himself). His mother had called the police because he had pushed her during a paranoid episode and she thought he would be taken to a mental health facility. Instead he was taken to jail and has been there for three months. She has tried to advocate for him to no avail. It's inhumane that there is no system in place to place people in appropriate facilities so that they can get the help they need. My friend was nearly in tears talking about it.