Feds, state let issue of mental illness slide to cities | RICH ELFERS

Enumclaw and Buckley mayors relate how King and Pierce counties have dumped the problem of the homeless mentally ill on the cities—with no funding to handle it.

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  • Tuesday, May 7, 2013 1:07pm
  • Opinion

Recently, three mayors came to a meeting of the Enumclaw Regional Healthcare Foundation, of which I am a member. Present were Liz Reynolds, mayor of Enumclaw, Pat Johnson, mayor of Buckley, and Rebecca Olness, mayor of Black Diamond. As we went around the room, Mayor Reynolds and Mayor Johnson riffed on how King and Pierce counties have dumped the problem of the homeless mentally ill on the cities—with no funding to handle it.

Mayor Reynolds noted that this problem actually began at the federal level. The government needed to cut expenses so it passed on caring for the mentally ill to the states, which passed the problem to the counties, who kicked the can down the road to the cities. Reynolds exclaimed, “I’m livid over this problem!” Johnson agreed that Pierce County had done the same thing to them.

King County requires two interviews for symptoms of mental illness. Legally, the city police cannot release potentially mentally ill individuals until after they have been interviewed. On one occasion the city of Enumclaw called King County at 4 p.m. asking for an interview. The woman from the county said it was too late in the day to deal with this issue. It was too far to drive to Enumclaw and she needed to get home to her children.

Meanwhile, the police officer had to stay with the potentially mentally ill person until the interview was completed—costing the city overtime and removing an officer from patrolling the streets. Reynolds has suggested they do interviews using Skype, with Enumclaw as a pilot program. The county is looking into that.

An administrator from St. Elizabeth Hospital chimed in, saying she had the same problem with the county that the cities do. The hospital has to deal with the mentally ill who come to their doors without any aid from the county. All that accomplishes is that it drives up the cost of healthcare—a form of indirect taxation for the public.

This is an example of a paralyzed and fearful government that, rather than raise taxes and anger its constituents, creates indirect taxation on the public through higher health costs that the public has to pay in another form—in this case poorer police coverage. That’s neither efficient nor smart.

Federal, state and county governments are avoiding their responsibilities out of fear of an irrational citizenry that wants all the services government can provide, yet does not want to pay the cost of those decisions.

The results of this irresponsible behavior trickle down to the cities and healthcare institutions, stuck with extra costs they can’t afford. Isn’t it time for the public to face the reality that if they want the services they’re going to have to pay the costs?

Not dealing with the problems means that these mental health issues are not properly addressed to the detriment of us all, especially the mentally ill.

Federal, state, and county elected officials have avoided dealing with these problems because they are afraid if they raise taxes to pay the costs, their constituents will vote them out of office. Local officials want to know how they are going to address these issues that have arrived on their doorsteps, putting the public at risk.

If voters want their elected officials to be accountable, the buck really stops in the pockets and the decisions of voters. Voters need to realize they are the ones who must be accountable and elect and retain responsible public officials who will deal with the problems rather than pass them down to the next level.

This practice simply doesn’t make any sense and it needs to stop. The buck doesn’t stop with the government officials; the buck really stops with us, the voters and taxpayers.


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