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Cowlitz County social programs in limbo as officials eye expiration of mental health sales tax

The tax helps pay for mobile crisis units used by local police, mental health services in the jail, and programs like the drug court in the southwestern Washington county
Kayla Medina, center, claps during a drug court session on Oct. 3, 2023. Medina is among those opposing plans to end Cowlitz County's mental health sales tax. | TROY BRYNELSON/OPB
October 12, 2023

Cowlitz County Superior Courtroom No. 3 crackled like a classroom during passing period. The judge had yet to arrive.

It was a regular meeting of drug court on a Tuesday afternoon in October. Dozens of people packed the benches. Many recognized each other. They flung jokes across a dark and austere room that, on almost any other day, would be muted.

Among them was Kayla Medina, who said she had been an addict since she was 11 years old. While she struggled with drug court at first, she said, she is now a vocal supporter.

Lately, she has been defending the court from falling victim to budget cuts.

“A lot of people need this program,” Medina, 35, said.

In recent weeks, Cowlitz County officials have floated the idea of ending a tax that helps fund a number of social services in the community. Called the Mental Health Sales Tax, it collects about 1 penny for every $10 spent in the community.

The tax is expected to dole out about $2.8 million next year. The money pays for mobile crisis units used by local police and mental health services in the community’s jail. It also pays a lion’s share of the budget for so-called “therapeutic courts” like drug court.

Two county commissioners — Arne Mortensen and Rick Dahl — aren’t convinced the Mental Health Sales Tax should be renewed when it expires in March, even as supporters say losing the tax at a time of rising drug overdoses and mental health needs would be catastrophic

“I’m a commissioner for 114,000 people,” Mortensen said in a recent interview. “I can’t put in programs that benefit three people, or 20 people, at the expense of the other 114,000 people.”

Cowlitz County Commissioner Arne Mortensen stands near his offices on Sept. 29, 2023. Mortensen has floated ending the county's mental health sales tax and has said he worries about overspending and misuse of funds.

Tensions over budget

While drug court and the mental health sales tax are distinct, they are inextricably tied through the county’s budget process. The sales tax pays for $240,000 of the court’s roughly $350,000 annual budget.

The tax gives another $403,000 to the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, which funds four mental health professionals to pair with police and help with people in crisis. It pays a combined $320,000 to staff a prosecutor and public defender who specialize in cases involving mental health.

But Mortensen, a retired engineer, has recently begun questioning if those services are worth their costs. In one public meeting in August, he stated bluntly that the county “shouldn’t do drug court anymore.”

“My education is in science,” Mortensen said. “I question everything.”

The two-term commissioner recently penned a widely circulated email outlining a case for axing both the sales tax and the drug court. He told OPB he fears tax dollars aren’t spent wisely.

“We have a pot of money there and we don’t have very good control over it,” he said.

Mortensen pointed to the jail using the funds in 2017 to buy a $237,000 full-body scanner. That expense did require commissioner approval, and Mortensen voted yes, but he said he regrets it now.

In his view, the commissioners can always bring the Mental Health Sales Tax back later, and it is worthwhile to put pressure on organizations receiving thousands of dollars.

For example, Mortensen supported cutting the mobile crisis units from four to one.

“I would like them to taper down from the four we gave them to one and make it work based on what they see there,” he said.

In Cowlitz County, where three commissioners set policy and budget, such decisions often come down to a two-person majority.

Rick Dahl, a retired banking executive who won a seat on the commission last fall, supported ending the sales tax. He views the program as paying for too many salaries. He said the tax would be better spent on capital projects, like a drug treatment center.

“It needs to be something concrete,” he said. “Something that people can say, ‘We paid for this.’”

Both commissioners expressed there is much time to debate between now and the budget vote in December. They also said that some programs funded by the tax could continue with general fund dollars.

“I am not opposed to those types of things, but I want to make sure they’re working for the benefit of the people and not just providing wages,” Dahl said.

Program supporters push back

Since the commissioners’ views became public, the Mental Health Sales Tax’s fate has become an ongoing debate at budget hearings. Many comments, but not all, center on the therapeutic courts.

Becky Morkert, a Longview resident, recalled how drug court saved her son’s life. The program helped him overcome addiction and get a commercial driver’s license. She worried how others would be deprived if the commissioners defunded the program.

“For you guys to even consider that, it really hurts my feelings,” Morkert told commissioners at a recent budget hearing. “He got his self-esteem back and his self-worth back because of that program.”

Stephen Warning, a retired judge, has been a very vocal critic of the commissioners’ idea. He helped start the local drug court in 1999. He said it’s such a popular program across the country, he was shocked to learn they could be in danger.

“The notion that something this well-established would suddenly be the subject of controversy has, I think, taken most folks by surprise,” Warning said in a recent interview.

The discussions also couldn’t come at a worse time, Warning said. According to the Cowlitz County Coroner’s Office, drug overdose deaths have doubled in the last five years.

“There’s a mountain of evidence that drug court is one of the most effective tools we’ve got in dealing with crime and drug addiction,” he said.

While Mortensen has publicly called-out drug courts, Dahl hasn’t been as stern. He said he sees how the program helps. In his view, it’s a program that should be funded by the county’s general fund — not a sales tax.

“Drug court, I’m not willing to sacrifice,” Dahl said. “I just want to know we’re being as efficient and using money as wisely as we can. But I ask that of any department.”

Still, the prospect of cutting the sales tax is concerning to other recipients. The idea has even put the commission at odds with many in Cowlitz County’s justice system.

On Sept. 28, a collective of police and courts officials signed a letter urging commissioners to rethink their position. The letter was signed by the sheriff, county prosecutor, jail administrator and the police chiefs in Longview, Kelso, Castle Rock, Woodland and Kalama.

“Programs such as therapeutic courts, behavioral health units, counseling services, etc. must continue,” they wrote. “Discontinuing them would be going backward. We urge you to continue funding them.”

Medina, the drug court attendee, agreed.

“I love the program. It’s a great program. I love the people in it,” she said.

No matter what happens, Medina’s time at drug court is near its end. She’s about to graduate. She said she feels confident, but she is going to miss her time there and doesn’t want others to miss out.

This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting and has been republished here with permission.