Olympia voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.85 million a year public safety tax in November. That tax hike is both a humanitarian and strategic investment for our community.
As new city revenues start to roll in with spring payments of the new year’s property taxes, the impact on Olympia streets and services won’t be visible for quite a few more months. And that is just fine.
In the long term, the city is moving in the right direction to unravel the complicated problem of mentally ill and homeless individuals who live on city streets or in makeshift encampments. A solution is needed to reduce this suffering.
A solution is also necessary for the ongoing revitalization of the downtown core and its growing number of dwellings.
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But answers to these socio-economic challenges are complicated to craft. Two years may be needed to fully put in place all the pieces of what Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts calls a “non-traditional” public safety program.
One hugely important piece in the works is a mobile mental-health crisis unit that can respond to calls of persons in distress or conflict instead of sending am armed and uniformed police officer.
Already more than 30 people have applied for the program manager job that will be stationed at the Olympia Police Department. The application deadline is Friday, and a hire is hoped for in early February. After that an outreach effort to emergency rooms, providers, the SideWalk rehousing group, mental health providers and others will be used to help design the program and its scope of duties. In April, Roberts hopes to formally ask vendors to submit bids or proposals for staffing the mobile units.
A similar program in Eugene, Ore., called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), was expanded to 24-hour-a-day operation in early 2017 after a more modest start in 1989. Eugene is where Roberts worked previously and learned of the approach.
The police department currently handles about three mental-illness related calls for assistance on an average day, according to Chief Roberts, who, along with Mayor Cheryl Selby, Roberts, and city manager Steve Hall, met with The Olympian Editorial Board late last year to talk about the next steps. There are also calls dealing with public intoxication.
Roberts’ plan is to have conversations with many other providers – from emergency rooms to the Thurston-Mason counties’ behavior health organization, the county jail triage center, shelters, and others – in designing the mobile response program.
Olympia’s phase-in may grate on some voters’ patience, especially with a second tax measure on the city ballot next month. The second ballot measure is for a sales-tax increase proposed for construction of supportive housing for the homeless and disabled in our city.
But getting the tactical mission of the mobile response team right – and getting the right vendor on board to provide the services – is critical.
The opening of the Community Care Center by the Providence St. Peter Hospital Foundation and partners last fall was a separate but also important step that should complement the mobile response program. The privately funded center provides care to individuals who are homeless in our county including mentally ill persons who can walk in for medical attention or be referred for housing, medications or other services.
We hope the city and care center find ways to pull together. There are ongoing issues with homeless people who congregate on sidewalks around the care center along State Avenue and nearby accumulations of trash left by other programs that aid the needy.
Restoration of downtown police walking patrols is another benefit of the public safety tax. The police chief wants to hire eight more police officers in addition to officer candidates already in training at the state academy to fill vacancies on his staff. The new tax funds will let Roberts reshuffle his team and relaunch the part of the walking patrols in the summer.
OPD is also hiring non-commissioned staff to assist with neighborhood policing and city code enforcement.
The police department is also relocating its west-side precinct offices from Perry Street to a larger space on Harrison Avenue.
The public safety tax is also giving a lifeline to Olympia’s community court experiment. A grant for the court-diversion program, which links defendants with services in a bid to get their lives back on a productive track, expires in June. New revenues ensure the program continues indefinitely, city manager Hall said.
As some smart people accustomed to managing difficult changes have said, a key measure is progress – not perfection. That’ll have to be the approach here.