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Small tax can yield big benefits in mental health services

Kittitas County has a mental health crisis, one that is heightened by COVID-caused social isolation, job losses and financial worries.

Suicide rates have been climbing for years, dramatically among high school aged students. And county residents ranked mental health as the number one health concern in a recent online survey.

Well over half of emergency room and hospital visits are connected to alcohol, substance abuse or mental health issues, as are a significant number of police and fire rescue calls.

What’s the answer?

Health professionals believe some suicides can be prevented and those with alcohol and drug dependency can turn their lives around with systematic and sustained help. However, Kittitas County is considered a “Health Professional Shortage Area,” meaning there aren’t enough medical doctors here, and psychological services are particularly scarce.

The Kittitas County Health Network (KCHN) is working to persuade the board of commissioners to pass a 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax to spend on increased mental health and substance abuse services, and to support court treatment programs. The tax increase amounts to an extra 10 cents on every $100 taxable purchase, and is expected to raise $1 million per year, if passed. This is not a property tax.

This funding will not solve the problem, but will add much-needed services to the county, and start some momentum toward additional solutions.

The League of Women Voters of Kittitas County and the KCHN are co-sponsoring a panel forum on June 17 at 6:30 p.m. to explain why the sales tax is needed and how it will help the county. The forum can be viewed on Facebook Live at the League’s Facebook page, @KittitasLeague. The video of the forum will be available for viewing after June 17 on YouTube, ECTV and Inland Networks.

Viewers can submit questions in advance to, or during the event in the Facebook comments section.

Panelists for the forum include:

Rich Elliott, moderator, who serves as deputy fire chief at Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue. He manages operations, training and prevention. Operations includes response, transport and community outreach which is how he is directly involved in behavioral and mental health access for our community. 

Steve Panattoni, Kittitas County Jail Superintendent.  He has been employed with the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office since 1982. In 1990 He started his law enforcement leadership journey as Sergeant; since 2005 he was assigned to the Sheriff’s Command staff.  He has worked in all areas of the Sheriff Office, Jail, patrol, major crimes, civil and administration.  In 2019 he accepted the role of Jail Superintendent for the Sheriff. His skills and experience include many certifications in levels of leadership, command and agency administration, budget/finance, community policing, and grant management.  His current focus is on strategic planning for the future of the Jail, securing avenues of sustained funding and developing programs to benefit the inmates while incarcerated and prepare them for reentry to society, with the hopes of reducing recidivism and helping them be productive members of our community.    

Dede Utley – Director, Emergency Services, KVH. With over twenty years of experience in emergency nursing, she has vast experience related to the emergency care of behavioral health patients while being treated in the emergency department. People with behavioral health conditions seek help, but often times have nowhere to turn except their local emergency department. She works closely with local crisis responders to provide care in the hospital setting, until the patient receives adequate outpatient or inpatient services. 

Diane Rossow – Community Prevention and Wellness (CPWI) Coordinator for Ellensburg. CPWI is a partnership of state agencies, counties, schools and local prevention coalitions supporting communities in preventing alcohol and other drug abuse and its negative consequences. CPWI priorities include reducing underage drinking, marijuana use and opioid misuse/abuse among middle and high school aged youth. 

Greg Aubol – Director for Comprehensive Healthcare in Kittitas County.  Leadership of clinical offices in Cle Elum and Ellensburg, Comprehensive’s ten transitional housing units, day support programming, domestic violence/sexual assault victim advocacy program, substance use disorder treatment program, and crisis response staff.  Comprehensive’s Designated Crisis Responders provide 24 hour crisis response to residents of Kittitas County.  They also provide limited contracted services to local school districts and the county jail.  

Auren O’Connell DNP, PMHNP – is a Family Psychiatric Mental-Health Nurse Practitioner with Kittitas Valley Healthcare (KVH). Auren is based out of Family Medicine Cle Elum but serves all of Kittitas County in conjunction with primary care providers across the KVH family. Currently, Auren’s main passion is helping to launch a behavioral health collaborative care program within Family Medicine Cle Elum to foster better access to rapid behavioral health and psychiatric interventions.

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