County might add ‘crisis responders’ to address mental health

The change is one of many that the council might make to the executive’s $1 billion budget plan.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council will explore expanding a team of behavioral health professionals that provides emergency support to people dealing with suicidal thoughts, addiction and other mental health problems.

While discussing next year’s budget on Wednesday, Council Chairman Nate Nehring and Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Wright proposed adding another staff member to the county’s 16 “designated crisis responders.”

Councilwoman Megan Dunn asked colleagues to consider funding 10 more mental health professionals and one supervisor for the program, which is now paid for by the state. The team is dispatched through a hotline, 1-800-584-3578, operated by the Volunteers of America Western Washington; its members can determine whether someone in crisis meets the legal criteria to be temporarily held at a psychiatric facility to protect themselves or others.

From January to September of this year, the county’s crisis responders served more than 8,000 people.

The proposal to enlarge the team comes amid local and nationwide conversations about whether police can effectively address mental health needs when they encounter someone in mental distress.

“I think it’s very clear that we need more options for mental health,” Dunn said.

Her suggestion is just one of several dozen proposed amendments to the billion-dollar 2021 spending plan that County Executive Dave Somers unveiled last month. Starting Monday, residents will have several chances to comment on the budget before the council adopts a final version, which is scheduled to happen Nov. 10.

Proposed tweaks would further cut employee travel and training expenses; ax a nearly $90,000 federal lobbying contract that the county has with a Seattle law firm; and slash the County Performance Auditor’s modest budget by more than half. Another change would give Snohomish County Superior Court a roughly $150,000 boost that justice officials say is needed to continue jury trials and address a case backlog caused by the coronavirus crisis. Whittling down the backlog is expected to take years.

Councilman Sam Low is pushing for funding for a $75,000 pilot program next year that would purchase one electric vehicle for the sheriff’s office to explore how the county can save on fuel in the future. The county spent more than $1.5 million on fuel last year, with the law enforcement agency’s vehicles guzzling about 340,000 of nearly 570,000 gallons purchased, Low said.

Council members have also requested more detail about a half-million dollars’ worth of criminal justice projects that Somers has pitched before his staff gets the funding to pursue them.

The specifics of those initiatives — a $375,000 pilot program to equip some sheriff’s deputies with body cameras and a $125,000 study of the local law and justice system — are still fuzzy, Somers told the council during a Monday presentation.

As county policymakers approved pandemic-induced budget cuts this year and began devising a spending plan for next, they’ve faced pressure from activists urging them to “defund the police” and put more money toward human services, as well as residents who have argued that any cuts to Sheriff Adam Fortney’s budget would be detrimental to public safety.

The social and racial justice proposals Somers has publicized account for a mere fraction of the county’s budget, which would total $1.045 billion in 2021 when factoring in airport funding, special revenue and many other pools of money that the county draws from.

He has proposed relatively small cuts to the sheriff’s office, whose budget would account for about 42% of the county’s $264 million primary operating fund, known as the general fund. When including all other funds, the law enforcement agency’s overall budget would be almost $134 million.

In comparison, Somers has proposed that the county spend about $4 million of its general fund on the Human Services Department, which — with grants and other money sources — would account for about $137 million of his billion-dollar spending plan.

County Human Services expects a nearly $2 million hit to “behavioral health and veterans services” next year, department Director Mary Jane Brell Vujovic told the council at an Oct. 6 presentation. But the department’s overall budget will swell by nearly $15 million compared to last year, to include a $3 million surge in coronavirus relief dollars and more funding for programs related to housing, developmental disabilities, early learning, long-term care and aging.

The county executive and his staff do not yet know how much body-worn cameras for sheriff’s deputies or the associated record-keeping system would cost. They’re also yet to delve into other impacts of establishing such a program, including how much work it would create for prosecutors and public defenders who would have to review the footage.

“Right now we have no resources for this,” Somers said. “We’ve begun the discussions. I don’t think they’ve gone to great depth, because currently we don’t have a program. It’s really dependent on council appropriation.”

The law and justice study, which would likely involve a third party such as a consulting firm, would recommend improvements that would make the system more equitable and efficient, county officials said.

The county initially allotted $250,000 to complete a similar assessment this year, but funding for the evaluation fell victim to budget cuts as policymakers slashed expenses amid tumbling sales tax revenue.

The body cameras and the study are two components of a slate of criminal justice reforms that Somers announced in June, blindsiding Sheriff Fortney and Prosecutor Adam Cornell.

Fortney has since said he supports body cameras as “an additional layer of transparency” between deputies and the residents they serve. The sheriff, who warned that significant cuts to law enforcement could have catastrophic consequences, has also praised the Somers budget proposal for largely preserving funding for policing.

Other components of Somers’ slate of improvements include a new community police oversight commission and reform of the cash bail system, which has drawn criticism for keeping indigent people behind bars while awaiting trial, simply because they are too poor to get out.

Officials in Somers’ office have consulted citizens, community groups and local justice experts about creating the commission and are drafting a measure that would establish the panel, said his chief of staff, Lacey Harper, during the Monday meeting.

The executive’s office also proposed allotting another $200,000 to the Office of Public Defense to launch a case management system to provide better insight into defendant data and how cases are resolved. That information could be used to inform future efforts to overhaul the cash bail system — likely a complicated and expensive endeavor, according to county officials.

Under the county executive’s 2021 spending plan, Harper said another $500,000 would go to the newly created Office of Social Justice to pay for community outreach, employee training programs and other efforts to address racial disparities.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

How to comment

The public can comment on Snohomish County’s 2021 budget at two hearings on Oct. 26, at 10:30 a.m. and at 6 p.m.

Residents can also weigh in during the next County Council General Legislative Session, which will take place on Oct. 28.

A final public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 10, when the council is set to adopt a spending plan.

All meetings will be held virtually via Zoom. More details, including information about how to watch and participate, are included in the meeting agendas, posted at snohomishcountywa.gov/2288/.

Residents can also email comments to contact.council@snoco.org.

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