Washington County Proposes Opioid Sales Tax To Combat Overdose Wave

By Paul Gaita 08/01/16

If approved, officials hope to use the money to boost law enforcement, create treatment programs and hire more social workers. 

Washington County Proposes Opioid Sales Tax To Combat Overdose Wave

Snohomish County, located in the western part of Washington state, has proposed a sales-tax hike on an upcoming ballot that will raise funds to help stem the tide of overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids that have plagued the county for the better part of the last half-decade. More than 400 people died of opioid overdoses in Snohomish County between 2011 and 2014—the second-highest rate of such deaths in the state—and in 2015, one in five heroin deaths in Washington state took place in the county.

Fentanyl has also begun to make its presence known there, with five deaths attributed to the synthetic drug last year. Efforts to curb the inflow of opioids and reduce the number of overdose deaths, as well as a $6 million budget shortfall, have pushed the resources for county health and law enforcement offices to their limits, which spurred the County Council to propose the sales-tax hike for the upcoming ballot on August 2.

The proposed hike is 0.2%, which would generate $0.20 on every $100 purchase. Over the next five years, the tax is projected to raise as much as $82 million, of which 60% would go to Snohomish County, with the other 40% distributed among municipalities. A large portion of the money, $16 million, is slated to boost law enforcement budgets and staffing, with the goal of adding up to 35 new sheriff’s deputies by 2021. A yet-unspecified amount of the tax revenue would go towards treatment programs and facilities, including a new detox facility as well as hiring four new social workers who would work alongside deputies to provide direct help to the county’s homeless population and chronic substance users.

The tax has so far incurred almost no organized opposition. Even the voter pamphlet for the August primary doesn’t include an opposing statement to the tax proposal. Only one County Council member, Kevin Klein from District 1, voted against the measure, citing a need for a more balanced distribution of funds between law enforcement and treatment. “I was looking for some assurances on how the money would be spent and how some of our largest problems of homelessness and chronic drug use would be addressed,” said Klein about his vote. “But we’re getting there.” 

The county’s Facebook page also shows some criticism of the proposed tax from residents, who already pay a 0.1% sales tax for mental health and drug treatment programs. But both law enforcement and county officials stress that the current structure can’t support the opioid crisis to the degree that’s needed. “It’s a big ask, but these are big problems,” said County Executive Dave Somers in regard to the tax hike. “The bottom line is that in one scenario, we can increase our efforts to address those problems. In the other, we’re going to have to decrease them.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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