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How much is a life worth?

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Winter is here. Temperatures in the 20’s and 30’s. Brrrr. I often think about how lucky I am that I was given opportunities to have a loving home while growing up, had a good education, have had good jobs, and have a great husband and family. And have good health, both mental and physical. And on these cold nights, I am thankful for the warmth of hearth and home, which not everyone in our county has.

On a cold December night, heading out to our council meeting, I noticed on the side of the road a gentleman carrying on a conversation with someone that only he could see. It was a little ironic since we had an ordinance in front of us that evening to authorize one-10th of one percent for Behavioral Health (mental health and substance abuse disorders) and Therapeutic Courts. I have worked on this since I got on the council four years ago and have written two previous columns that explained the need and the process. Many of us have studied this issue and talked to and listened to hundreds of people that are impacted by the lack of services for behavioral health. Those of us on the council that see the need for this tax have been working with community and family members, first responders (law enforcement and fire) to develop a system that would use the funds appropriately and efficiently to better serve these populations and their families.

I, along with council members Talbert, Young and Richardson, voted in favor of this ordinance. That is four – a majority. But this ordinance required a super majority. It did not pass. I have to admit that I am frustrated and, yes, angry. But most of all I am sad…sad for all those people, like the gentleman that I saw that night, like the mother who told me she had no place for her daughter who is exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, like the brother who talked about his brother who has been on the streets for years because the resources are not there for him, and like the parents whose son committed suicide at a young age.

If passed, this tax would have affected all areas of the county outside of Tacoma (they have already passed this tax within their jurisdiction). Would this be an efficient use of funds? Many mentally ill in this county who do not qualify for Medicaid currently get served either in our jail or our emergency rooms. Neither provides treatment. How much would this tax cost an average household in Pierce County? $1.67 a MONTH. It costs $208 dollars a DAY to jail someone with a behavioral health condition in our jail. Plus the cost for our first responder to respond to calls. Plus the cost to businesses for loss of potential business. Plus the increases in medical insurance premiums to cover the cost of emergency room care. Our residents are in reality paying more than what they would pay in this tax. Treatment in the community is more cost effective and more successful in prevention of future arrests. In fact, since the passage of the tax in Tacoma and the implementation of prevention and intervention programs, the jail population of offenders that have been arrested as a result of their mental conditions has decreased by 75 percent. And it would be possible to use these savings for further treatment programs or additional police or jail mental health services.

Some think that this should go to a vote of the people. This vote, by law, would be advisory only. It would not be binding. According to the County Auditor, this election would cost us $380,000. I would argue that we have made our case in justifying this tax by identifying the gaps and needs in the system, as well as the foundation for the utilizations of the funds. I also need to reiterate that we are elected to research and study issues and to listen to constituents in order to make informed decisions. We have done that. And sometimes we need to be the voice of those that cannot speak for themselves and take care of those that are least able to care for themselves. Oh, one other thing that I think all of you should be aware of: The Legislature allocated $1.5 million to Pierce County for mental health services if this tax were passed in this biennium. Those that voted against this tax basically threw away $1.5 million and was willing to waste another $380,000 on an election that has no teeth.

I am going home tonight in a car with a heater to a home that is toasty warm. And every time I do I think about those on the street that have behavioral health problems, that can’t get treatment, that have no place to go. I also think of those that do have homes but also have no resources to help them survive their daily demons. All of these people struggle daily. Some of them will not survive. They will die on the streets or in their homes. So I have to ask: Is a life worth $1.67?

Connie Ladenburg is a member of the Pierce County Council.

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