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After more than a decade of debate, Kittitas County is finally moving forward in the footsteps of dozens of other Washington state counties in enacting a mental health sales tax.

According to a press release from the Kittitas County Board of County Commissioners, the board voted 2-1 to pass the 1/10th of 1% increase in sales and use tax at a special meeting held Tuesday. Commissioners Cory Wright and Brett Wachsmith voted for the measure, with Commissioner Laura Osiadacz voting against it.

In an April public hearing, the board had voted 2-1 to place the proposed tax on the ballot. Commissioner Brett Wachsmith being the sole commissioner voting against that measure. According to the press release, upon further review by the county prosecutor’s office, it was determined that the measure could not be put on the ballot, prompting Tuesday’s meeting.

“It was determined that though the commissioners could seek an advisory vote, this tax needed to be imposed by the Board of County Commissioners,” the release said. “The board voted to direct staff to draft enabling documents enacting provisions of RCW 82.14.460 in Kittitas County code with an expiration date of six years following enactment unless further authorized by legislative body approval prior to expiration. The Kittitas County Prosecutor’s Office will be working in conjunction with the Kittitas County Auditor’s Office to bring forth an ordinance enacting the 1/10 of 1% increase in sales and use tax at a future agenda session.”

MOVING FORWARD TO HELP OTHERS

Although she wasn’t available for further comment prior to press deadline, Commissioner Osiadacz said in the Tuesday meeting that she would vote against the choice to pass it with a legislative vote, saying she preferred the avenue of holding an advisory vote.

“As a representative of the people, I have been extremely transparent in my support for hearing from all people in Kittitas County,” she said in her comments on the issue during the meeting. “I have also been clear that I believe that when it comes to new taxes, people should have a vote, even if it’s an advisory vote. I want to make it clear that I support this tax and I agree there is a need for this, but I do not support this process.”

Osiadacz explained that an advisory vote is a tool that can be used to gauge voters’ opinions, a tool she said reduces barriers to citizen involvement.

“If the mental health tax were to be put on the ballot for an advisory vote, would I vote for it?” she posed. “Absolutely. My decision is clear. I believe the people should be allowed to vote for new taxes, advisory or not.”

Commissioner Brett Wachsmith, who has made his support for this issue clear throughout the duration of the process said it is time to move forward with getting help to those who need it within our community.

“The number of resources and services that passing this will open up to people in our community, it’s huge,” he said. “It’s a long time overdue. That’s obviously why I support it is that I see the benefits, which are well-documented.”

Wachsmith said the key benefits the funding will provide to existing infrastructure in the county is that it will shift the funding for those positions from a grant-based funding strategy to a system that is sustainable for the long-term. Those services include resources for inmates at the county jail to receive mental health and substance abuse counseling, especially as they are released back into the general population.

“Having that warm handoff after they get out of jail is needed so you don’t have somebody that’s been in jail for however long and you just say good luck to you,” he said. “You have a system in place that gets them to whatever resources they might need, whether it is substance abuse or mental health.”

Other benefits Wachsmith pointed out in the funding include more expanded resources to area students experiencing crises, especially amidst the pandemic.

“Those existed even before COVID,” he said. “COVID’s just made it that much more of an issue. Having those counselors our students can lean on and meet with is obviously needed, based on all the data we’ve seen.”

Over in the city’s emergency room, Wachsmith pointed to the two crisis care coordinators, another position that is currently grant funded.

“Before them, you would have somebody from Comprehensive Mental Health that was up all night and dealing with maybe one or two people in the emergency room,” he said. “The next day they’d turn around and have to cancel all their scheduled appointments. Now that’s not happening, and people are actually sticking to a schedule, which is hugely beneficial. Those are all currently funded by grant dollars, which is not great from a sustainability perspective. Now we can actually make those services an ongoing thing with guaranteed funding. It’s huge.”

TAKING THE BULL BY THE HORNS

Although he voted to place the tax on the ballot back in April, Commissioner Cory Wright said he had a shift in perspective over the summer after talking to a local funeral home owner about the issue.

“We talked about what he had seen, and my mind at that time was changed,” he said. “I believe that the summer we had was simply tragic, and I think that we as a community have got to grapple with the fact that just like larger cities, we are feeling the same issues here. Even if it is on a smaller scale being a smaller community, it is just as damaging to our fabric.”

Having been moved by the rash of fentanyl deaths among local youth, Wright said it is time for the county to beef up on their arsenal to battle the issue. He pointed out that an advisory vote is simply a method of advising the board on how the electorate feels on a certain issue. He said the opportunity for the board to move forward on the issue posthaste is directly rooted in the foundations of democracy.

“It’s consent of the governed, which is a bedrock foundation of our nation’s documents,” he said. “I believe the consent of the governed lies in the ballot box. It does not lie in a straw poll in every single issue that comes before us. Frankly, the fact is people put others in office with the confidence and knowledge that they will do the research and study necessary to make the most educated decision at the end of the process. As a person who previously did not hold office, I had no idea of the depth of some of the issues that were placed on the ballot. I had a voters’ pamphlet, and I did my best. I would use those resources available to me to make the best decision, but I had nowhere near the level of tools and resources and people to be able to help understand these decisions as I do now sitting in this chair.”

In voting for the legislation, he said he is putting his beliefs on the forefront based on everything he has heard from public testimony and conversations with community leaders, as well as data presented to the board regarding the issue at hand.

“I’ve come to the realization that we live in a representative republic where the population votes people into these offices with an expectation that they’re going to do a job,” he said. “At the end of their term, they will be judged on that. I’ve decided over the course of this year, given what we’ve gone through, that I’m content with the voters judging me at the end of my term. During this term, I am going to do the job the voters asked me to do, which is to make those difficult decisions.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!