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Military family aid measure needs more work

Post by Kim Bradford on May 26, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
May 26, 2011 5:37 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

United Way of Pierce County wants to do more for local troops and their families, and it hopes voters do too.

The organization has asked the Pierce County Council to place on the November ballot a new property tax to fund an array of social and mental health services to military families.

It’s a small tax – five cents on each $1,000 of assessed valuation or $12.50 a year for the owner of $250,000 house – but one that raises big questions.

Such as, should county property taxpayers be footing the bill for services that are arguably the responsibility of the federal government? Exactly how large is the unmet need?

Here’s another: Should a countywide tax to pay for social services benefit only service members and their dependents?

Military families have unique and pressing needs, but they are not the only county residents slipping through the cracks. Local and state government budget shortfalls have left many vulnerable people without the services they desperately need.

When King County voters agreed to a similar tax to pay for human services, they directed the county to split the proceeds between help for veterans and help for other county residents.

That was in 2005, long before the recession had left the civilian safety net in tatters. Since then, the military has launched several efforts to care for the physical and emotional needs of returning veterans and their families.

Some might be surprised by just how many programs are available to active-duty service members. United Way itself had to revise its proposal after Joint Base Lewis-McChord officials objected to the suggestion that the base can provide mental health services to only 25 percent of service members who need them.

The military definitely has further to go. Just this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a major overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs, citing statistics that show an average of 18 veterans kill themselves each day.

Suicides at Lewis-McChord are also up, but not as high as base leaders had feared they would go as large brigades began coming home last spring. That fear was in part the reason Madigan Army Medical Center has been beefing up its network of behavioral health programs.

Not every soldier or military spouse feels comfortable accessing those services. The core of United Way’s proposal – to use existing community resources to reach military families where they live and in a way that carries less stigma – scores several fiscal and humanitarian points.

But putting the responsibility for military families on county taxpayers could end up supplanting, not adding to, federal efforts. This community doesn’t need to give the military an excuse to not meet its obligation at Lewis-McChord.

The County Council should carefully weigh whether it has enough information to recommend the measure to voters.

It should also consider whether this proposal, which began its life as a proposal to the Department of Defense for federal funding, shouldn’t return to its origins.

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