Sales tax hike to aid public health?

House proposes letting county raise amount to backfill loss of millions

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Clark County stands to lose $3.5 million per biennium in state funding for public health programs under a proposed budget released Tuesday by House Democrats.

To backfill some of the losses, the House proposes giving the county the authority to increase the local sales tax without a public vote.

The proposed House budget would eliminate all general funding for local public health agencies beginning in January. That amounts to $72.8 million per biennium across the state. Local health officials are allowed to use that money for public health programs of greatest need in their counties, said John Wiesman, Clark County Public Health director.

The House also has proposed in a bill that has not yet been released to the public, House Bill 4386, to give local governments the authority to increase their sales tax by one-tenth of a cent in the seven largest counties, which includes Clark County, and two-tenths of a cent in the remainder of the counties. The bill would also take liquor taxes from cities and counties and redirect that money to public health, according to Wiesman.

Currently, most of Clark County has a sales tax rate of 8.2 percent (set to increase to 8.4 percent in April). Some unincorporated areas in the county have a rate of 7.7 percent.

Wiesman said the House budget is bad public health policy. If implemented, it would eliminate the state’s shared responsibility for local public health networks and burden local governments, he said.

“Our citizens are only protected to the extent of our weakest link. If my neighboring county does not recognize a communicable disease and work quickly to stop it, it will soon be on my doorstep, perhaps with preventable deaths,” Wiesman said.

Late last year, Gov. Chris Gregoire released her proposed all-cuts budget. The governor’s proposal spared the flexible public health money. Still to come is the Senate’s version of the two-year budget which is expected early next week and final negotiations among the House, Senate and governor.

Marc Boldt, Clark County commissioners chairman, urged the House to make the state share responsibility for funding the local public health network, in a letter sent Wednesday to Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

The county has made it abundantly clear that public health is a local priority, Boldt said Wednesday.

The county has more than doubled its funding contribution to public health from $2.6 million a biennium to $5.5 million a biennium and dedicated a 1 percent property tax increase in 2011 to public health programs, Boldt said. In addition, over the past five years, the county has fostered community partnerships and transitioned services to nongovernmental programs in order to provide them in the most cost-effective way possible, he said.

“Clark County has not pushed this responsibility up to the state,” Boldt said. “It has stepped up to the plate.”

Boldt also urged the House to request the Washington State Department of Health, cities, counties and the Washington State Association of Local Public Health Officials to work together and draft a plan by January 2013 that identifies a sustainable structure and financing plan for public health services.

The state and federal government have a tendency to take local revenue to pass their budgets and leave local governments with the responsibility to fill the gap, in this case with a possible sales tax increase, county Commissioner Tom Mielke said.

Mielke said he would like to see other local jurisdictions help pay for public health services, especially since 67 percent of services are for people living in Vancouver city limits.

As for a local sales tax increase, Boldt said he thinks it should go to voters before being implemented.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.