FOR OBVIOUS REASONS, there's been a lot of talk lately about the under-funding of mental health care in Portland. But who or what is to blame? And what is to be done?
First of all, anyone complaining about under-funding of anything needs to know how much money Portland and Multnomah County have lost due to property tax cuts.
In 1990 and 1996, Oregon voters passed Ballot Measures 5 and 47, which cut property taxes dramatically and said that the assessed value of any property can't increase by more than 3 percent a year—even if the actual value of the property goes up by 20 percent.
According to the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission, rolling back Measure 47 alone would allow the city and county to collect approximately $150 million more in revenue. That could buy a lot of mental health. Going back to the pre-Measure 5 tax rates would raise over $450 million.
Secondly, some might argue for scaling back urban renewal. If all the money diverted from the normal tax rolls to urban renewal projects, like the Pearl District, were instead sent back to the city, county, and school district general funds, the city and county would have an extra $20 million apiece. But urban renewal advocates would probably argue that some urban renewal money is set aside for low-income housing, and without that more people with mental illness would be homeless.
Third, I think the county would love to adopt a beer and wine tax, use the money to fund alcohol and drug treatment—especially for people involved in the criminal justice system—and free up other funds for mental health treatment. And I think Multnomah County voters would go along. But though Oregon has a really low beer and wine tax, state law prohibits local taxes. We need to lobby in Salem to change that.
Fourth, we could redirect some of the money we now spend on prisons to fund mental health care. One of the few areas in which we have really increased public spending in this state in the past 20 years is prisons—we passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws for certain offenses and locked up a lot of people for long periods of time. That costs a lot of money.
Crime experts say increasing the "swiftness and certainty" of sanctions for offenders, plus treatment when appropriate, is more important than increasing the severity of sanctions. If you lock someone up for 3.5 years instead of 2.25 years, you probably aren't significantly increasing the deterrent effect on that offender, but you are spending a bunch of money that you could use to do other things.
For example, you could use the extra money to throw parole violators in jail for a couple of days instead of letting them slide until they get out of hand. You could pay for more alcohol and drug treatment for offenders. Or you could pay for more services—not just mental health treatment per se, but wraparound services like housing and employment assistance for people with mental illness who have gotten mixed up with the criminal justice system.
Listening to the experts, I came up with an idea I call the "public safety kicker." I'm no expert, but some certified crime-smart people have told me it might work.
In our balkanized criminal justice system, counties pay for prosecution and "community corrections," while the city pays for police and the state pays for prisons. But we know where the prisoners come from. How about having the state make a deal with the counties, saying, "If you reduce the number of years served by people from your county in our prisons, we'll send you a public safety 'kicker.' We'll give you the money we save and you can spend it on local crime-fighting programs, from jails to drug treatment to assistance for people with mental illness."
The county commissioners, district attorneys, community corrections directors, and human services folks would have to work together to make this work. Maybe it can't be done without tweaking the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, but I think it's worth a shot.
Steve Novick is a known guy who knows a lot about politics and money stuff. In addition to being a Portland Mercury columnist, his resume includes running for US Senate in the Democratic Primary in 2008.