Snohomish County is citing its opioid epidemic as it advocates for a sales-tax increase that would, in large part, help it hire more sheriff’s deputies.

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In the latest drug epidemic to hit Snohomish County, the dead are mechanics, chefs and engineers. They were homeless living in encampments, and white-collar professionals renting in the complexes that dot the Highway 99 corridor.

Nathaniel McDonald was one of the latter. A 43-year-old software engineer, he was found dead inside his Everett home in November, leaving behind a widow and three children. According to state medical records, the cause was a toxic mixture of heroin and alcohol.

James Stumpf was another. The 44-year-old died in 2015 of a heroin overdose after a long battle with prescription opiate addiction, said his sister Susan Stumpf.

In the weeks before his death, and after years of prodding, Susan Stumpf had finally convinced her brother to connect with local substance-abuse treatment providers. He “got scared and did the drugs one more time” before getting clean, she said — but that one more time was what killed him.

Snohomish County is citing a growing number of opioid overdose deaths as it advocates for a sales-tax increase that would, in large part, help it hire more sheriff’s deputies. A much smaller portion of the money might be used for treatment programs and hiring social workers, but details wouldn’t be worked out until after the measure passes.

From 2011 to 2014, 420 people died of opioid overdoses in Snohomish County — a death rate that ranks among the state’s highest. Officials are calling it an epidemic.

Efforts to curb the problem have been complicated by budget troubles.

“Everyone, every department, is strained,” County Executive Dave Somers said. “We obviously have a lot more people on the street than we can provide for. At times it feels like we’re on a treadmill. We’re trying to help, but it still doesn’t feel like we’re reducing the problem.”

Sales-tax hike on ballot

The county is facing a $6 million budget shortfall because revenues have not kept up with rising costs. That could mean a 3 percent across-the-board spending cut next year. Law enforcement has a big stake in this — it comprises almost 75 percent of the county’s general fund budget.

To fill the gap, the County Council in May authorized sending a countywide sales-tax hike to the public for a vote. It appears on the Aug. 2 ballot — mailed earlier this month — as Proposition No. 1.

The tax hike is 0.2 percent, which is 20 cents on a $100 purchase. It’s projected to generate as much as $82 million over the next five years. The county would collect 60 percent, with the other 40 percent divided among municipalities.

The largest chunk of the money is earmarked to shore up law-enforcement budgets and staffing — $16 million would be used to put as many as 35 new sheriff’s deputies on the streets by 2021. It’s the first time the county has sought a revenue increase dedicated to law enforcement programs. But since some money would also go to treatment programs, backers of the measure are calling it a pivot toward a more comprehensive way of addressing homelessness and addiction.

“Traditional policing isn’t going to solve this problem,” said Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary.

As residents consider their options, questions linger about whether the county can strike the right balance between stemming the property crimes addicts sometimes commit and providing the treatment they need.

The county already collects a 0.1 percent sales tax to fund mental-health and drug treatment. It also operates various drug diversion programs, but people who enter those programs do so only after they’re confronted with jail time.

“What I want is to move toward being better at recognizing people as chronic users on the front end and getting people into treatment and an offramp out of a life of repeat drug abuse sooner rather than later,” Trenary said.

Exactly how much of the new tax revenue would be devoted to treatment, versus strictly to law enforcement, remains a moving target. The sheriff said his office won’t de-emphasize drug arrests. But $2 million could be set aside for unspecified social-service programs and for a new drug detox facility near the county jail, according to projections provided to The Seattle Times by the county executive’s office.

There are also proposals to spend about $2.7 million over a five-year period embedding four new social workers with deputies, letting them act as the primary point of contact for homeless and chronic substance abusers looking to get treatment. Of the 471 people interviewed for the county’s 2016 homeless Point in Time study, 179 reported some form of chemical dependence.

“Big ask, big problems”

Amid efforts to stem the tide of highly addictive prescription opioids funneled to the black market, addicts have turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative.

That was James Stumpf’s path — he’d started with prescription painkillers, a habit that worsened at some point after a motorcycle crash in which his face was so badly damaged he needed reconstructive surgery, his sister said. He ended up dying on the bathroom floor next to a syringe and spoon.

Heroin-related deaths nationwide tripled from 2010 to 2014, according to a June 2016 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report.

In Snohomish County, a Seattle Times analysis of death certificates shows the county had the second-highest rate of opioid-related deaths in Washington from 2011 to 2014.

In the run-up to the election, backers of the proposed tax have spent thousands to spread their message, via mailers and radio ads that point to the heroin problem as one reason more cops are needed.

Trenary, Somers and other county officials formed a political action committee to drum up support for the tax. Called “A Safer Snohomish County,” the campaign has raised more than half a million dollars, $400,000 of which has come from the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians. The Snohomish County Deputy Association has contributed $100,000.

Meanwhile, organized opposition to the tax increase appears almost nonexistent. A voter pamphlet for the August primary provided to county residents doesn’t contain an opposing statement.

District 1 Councilmember Kevin Klein, who cast the lone vote against the measure that put the tax proposal to a public vote, said he’s not opposed to giving law enforcement more resources.

“There has to be a balance between enforcement and treatment, and at the time I was looking for some assurances on how the money would be spent and how some of our largest problems of homelessness and chronic drug use would be addressed,” he said. “But we’re getting there.”

Kathleen Kyle, director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, said the public defender’s office is generally supportive of the proposed tax and the hiring of new social workers.

If the county’s approach was still “business as usual,” there might be cause for worry, she said. “I think law enforcement now knows that keeping people cycling through the criminal justice system isn’t solving our problems,” she said.

It remains an open question whether voters will be similarly convinced that hiring more cops will mean fewer people cycling through the criminal justice system. Comments on the county’s Facebook page indicate some hostility toward adding to residents’ tax burden.

Still, Somers said the proposed law enforcement tax won’t put the county out of line with other counties in the region.

“It’s a big ask, but these are big problems,” he said. “The bottom line is that in one scenario we can increase our efforts to address those problems. In the other, we’re going to have to decrease them.”

Public health issue

In the case of Nathaniel McDonald, his mother said that although there were signs, it wasn’t until after her son died that it became clear he’d begun using hard drugs.

Unclear now: whether county officials’ proposed changes would help them reach addicts such as McDonald, who was not transient and had few run-ins with the law.

Nathaniel McDonald, a 43-year-old software engineer, husband and father, died in November from a toxic mixture of heroin and alcohol. (Courtesy of Nancy Miller)
Nathaniel McDonald, a 43-year-old software engineer, husband and father, died in November from a toxic mixture of heroin and alcohol. (Courtesy of Nancy Miller)

“There’s still a lot of thought about what you could have done,” McDonald’s mother, Nancy Miller, said.

The sentiment echoes one expressed by Kyle about drug plagues in general in Snohomish County.

Just as opioids do now, methamphetamine presented public-safety and health crises in the early 2000s that officials are still working to solve. That a more treatment-centric approach wasn’t in place at the time remains a missed opportunity, Kyle said.

“There was a big law-enforcement push, and it did tamp down on violent crime,” she said. “But if we had treated addiction as a public-health issue back then, I wonder what we could have done.”