Commissioners approve tax increase for mental health spending

COUPEVILLE — It’s not often Island County commissioners get a standing ovation for voting for a tax increase.

An audience of concerned citizens and mental health professionals rose as one, however, to show their approval of the commissioners’ unanimous vote to raise sale taxes .1 percent increase. The money raised will eventually fund chemical dependency and mental health treatment services.

For Commissioner Mike Shelton, the sales-and-use tax increase will provide a mechanism for a preventive piece of the puzzle that has not been provided by state or federal agencies.

“What I really believe is that this puts a prevention piece into the mental health arena that we have never had before,” Shelton said.

“The current mental health system that is financed primarily through Medicaid is not a preventive type of program. The other great thing this program does is that it offers services to people who are neither Medicaid-eligible or have insurance,” he said. “That represents a huge population of Island County that suffers from mental illness.”

Commissioner John Dean said the increase could potentially save teens from suicide.

The issue was underscored for Dean when a Camano Island teenager killed himself in front of deputies last month.

“We know that the evidence is there that if you get to these people and give them the help that they need, then it will have an impact in the justice system and the emergency rooms,” Dean said.

“You can set some goals but you will never know how many people you reach. I think if we save one or two teenagers from suicide, it would be a total success,” Dean added.

Commissioner Mac McDowell was pragmatic as well, only from a financial perspective. He said the county’s population density is not as high as some of the other counties that are also adopting the tax increase.

“The question I have is, you look at Camano Island, no cities. Island County in general is pretty rural, more bedroom communities these days,” he said.

A similar increase in other places will bring in more money, he said, adding that the state ought to recognize it is not providing adequate funding to address mental health issues.

Before the vote, some wondered how the county would be able to tell if the tax increase was worthwhile.

“What are the primary, specific and measurable positive results that you can expect from investing another million dollars a year roughly of taxpayers’ money in improving mental health and reducing chemical dependency? At the end of year one or year two, how will you know how successful this is?,” asked Richard Bryant of Coupeville.

“I can’t give you exact numbers of how many kids they will see or how many families they will see. But we know it will be in the 100s,” said Jackie Henderson, director of Island County Health Services.

“We know that they will not only will the provide treatment right there in the schools, but they will refer them to other community programs and services they determine the children will need,” she said.

In addition to helping children in need, Henderson said the county would be able to reach out to the mentally ill and chemically-dependent people in the justice system to provide assessments and services before they leave the system.

It will also help those who abuse alcohol, mix medications with alcohol, are depressed, or suffer from all three at the same time.

“It just seems like the morally right thing to do, to get them hooked up to services and supports, as well as the economic thing to do,” she said.

Mary Sandford of Langley served as a biological anthropologist for many years and said she has looked at mental illness through a scientist’s eyes.

She said it was a severe problem that the sales tax increase might help address.

“I think here today, we can make a real difference, differences that may be hard to measure because it is hard to know every time you made a difference with a program aimed at prevention,” Sandford said.

“Most cases of clinical depression can be effectively treated through a combination of talk therapy and medication. You can make a difference between life and death,” she said.

Residents already pay for mental health issues, regardless of the funding source, added a member of the South Whidbey school board.

“I am here to advocate for this measure. We are paying for mental illness in our schools right now, one way or another, via grants and other things to help meet the needs of our students,” said Helen Price-Johnson.

“It continues to increase at both the secondary and the primary level. Thank you very much for considering this. I think it will be a wonderful asset and will double the counseling services able to be provided to us,” she said.

Spencer Webster can be reached at 221-5300 or at

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