King County’s mental health tax is a bold request for voters | Opinion

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon at a fast food restaurant in Kirkland when a stranger’s mental meltdown surfaced without warning. Most of the booths were occupied by families, while the indoor playground bustled with toddlers and grade-schoolers. It felt good to see my two hungry boys eat a satisfying lunch.

I had overheard an irate customer at the cash registers several feet away, but I dismissed it as background noise — until the man’s swearing grew louder and closer. I couldn’t tell you what he was grumbling about because all I could hear was nonsensical ranting full of racial epithets and f-bombs. I was annoyed that he was talking like that in front of all those kids, and I was relieved when he stormed out the door.

But then the man returned. After picking up a sack of food and a drink, he continued a tirade that seemed directed at nobody in particular while he paced throughout the restaurant. He sat down at the last empty table in the corner when the restaurant manager calmly told the man he needed to leave. The man’s anger escalated. He threw the food in the manager’s face in a micro-explosion of fries and soda.

My sons and I were sitting at a table next to the door. By this time, I was on my feet. The man walked toward the door and locked his eyes on mine. In those few seconds, time slowed to a crawl. I gripped the back of a heavy metal stool as the adrenaline surged in my body. I was ready to respond.

Fortunately, he walked past us and out the door, and I was awash with relief. The stoic manager started cleaning up the mess. A few blocks away, I drove past a group of police officers who were arresting the man at an intersection. I admit, I was shaken by the situation. I prefer to see the good in people and I don’t live in fear. But in that moment at that restaurant, the fight-or-flight mindset took over, and all I could think about was protecting my children.

So what’s the moral of the story? I don’t know what happened to the man, who was clearly having a mental health crisis — the kind of mental health crisis you may have encountered at some point with any given stranger on any given day. I doubt he received any kind of worthwhile treatment because reliable options don’t really exist. And I couldn’t have been the only person in the restaurant who wanted that man to get help.

For example, consider the recent case about Noah Peterson, whose alleged death threats to a teacher last November at Meridian Elementary in Kent resulted in the school’s weeklong closure. Nearly 150 concerned citizens showed up to a town hall in response, and who could blame them? It is every parent’s worst nightmare to get a call like this about their child’s school. This man lived close enough to the school to see it from his upstairs window. The suspect was involuntarily committed and was given medications while being held in jail.

Last month, a judge reluctantly dismissed Peterson’s criminal charges and released him from jail. The suspect had been found incompetent to stand trial, but there’s no room for him at a mental treatment center. Western State Hospital can’t take him in until July. And that’s in a best-case scenario.

For better or worse, it’s now up to King County taxpayers to make a bold move toward fixing a broken system.

The King County Council just approved a $1.25 billion behavioral health levy for the April 25 special election. If it passes, the levy would fund several new regional crisis care centers along with a related workforce and more beds. The proposed property tax would cost the owner of a median-valued home about $121 in 2024.

We need more mental health treatment options. But voters may be reluctant to support yet another property tax on our already out-of-control property tax burdens. It’s a tough sell right now, despite good intentions, and especially in a county where people can hardly afford housing in the first place. Package this proposal as part of a sin tax, for example, and voters would be more likely to say yes.

This isn’t about being a bleeding heart, nor does it mean shifting the blame for the roots of this mental health crisis. I think most of us agree that more mental health treatment would, in the long run, reduce the number of tense encounters that rattle the public and keep people on edge.

This proposed investment is costly, but consider the ongoing costs of filling up jails and emergency rooms. It will be interesting to see if voters feel the same way.

Andy Hobbs is editor of the Federal Way Mirror. Contact