Walla Walla County Commission Chairman Greg Tompkins was on the commission board the first time the idea was broached to use a sliver of local sales tax money to fund new and expanded behavioral health services in the county.

Under a 2010 Washington state law enacted in January of 2012, counties were authorized to collect money for services, case management, transportation, therapeutic courts and housing as part of a coordinated effort to provide mental-health or chemical dependency treatment in communities.

That same year, Tompkins said “aye” for the one-tenth of 1% sales tax proposal here and did so again on Monday, June 7, saying he was pleased to support the motion for a second time.

The money gathered through local sales tax revenue opens up a menu of services for Walla Walla County residents who otherwise might not be able to access or afford them. The tax was sunset without this week’s re-authorization.

In 2012, the behavioral health tax added $670,337 to government and nonprofit programs; in 2020, about $1,296,888 came in via the tax, according to county data.

The funding, along with money from state and federal sources, covers services in multiple platforms, including in-school counseling, post-prison life, clean and sober living for women who battled addiction, direct behavioral health counseling on a walk-in basis, wraparound jail services, unhoused youth and therapeutic services for teens lodged at Walla Walla County Juvenile Justice Center.

Needs identified by area health partners for funding in 2021 include access to care, suicide prevention and reduction of harm, helping people avoid using emergency departments for primary health care and youth behavioral health.

The success of those kinds of efforts show up in a number of ways, noted Peggy Needham and Nikki Sharp of the Department of Community Health in a presentation to county commissioners on May 24.

With the extra tax funding, Walla Walla County is able to meet Washington’s “Behavioral Health Priority Outcomes” in ways that include improved health and wellness, increased meaningful activities like employment and education, reduced involvement with criminal justice systems, lowering avoidable costs in hospitals, emergency rooms, crisis services, and corrections facilities, more stable housing in the community and a decrease in health and other disparities between groups of residents.

Commissioners Todd Kimble and Jennifer Mayberry also voted for the tax funding to continue. Kimble said he could talk for “half an hour” on the good the money has brought to the community, and Mayberry said she is looking forward to seeing future benefits.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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