Pierce County Councilman Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor) conducted two town hall meetings at the KP Community Council and Longbranch Improvement Club in June to describe his work on the county council and field questions from residents.
Young represents the 7th District, which includes the Key Peninsula, Gig Harbor, parts of north and west Tacoma, and Fox and McNeil islands. The most frequent questions from the approximately 50 audience members at the LIC meeting concerned efforts to improve road safety and combat property crime.
Multiple residents described their dissatisfaction with increased traffic and inadequate conditions on the Key Peninsula Highway and State Route 302, including the Purdy Bridge intersection.
“The main problem with the Key Peninsula Highway, and 302 to a lesser extent, is that it’s pretty topographically restrained; that makes expanding it extremely difficult and extremely costly,” Young said. “We are improving shoulders in as many places as possible.”
Young said the county would also be improving pedestrian safety north and south of Key Center.
“This year we plan to finish the shoulder improvement down to Red Barn and we’re adding to our plan a pedestrian corridor from Key Center north all the way to 302,” he said. “That’s not the only area we’re going to be improving, but that’s a high priority.”
Young also pointed out that SR-302 and the Purdy Bridge are the state’s responsibility, not the county’s, but said he serves on a research committee to improve traffic flow on SR-16 and is pushing for approval and funding to upgrade the Purdy off-ramp, intersection and bridge configuration.
“The ultimate solution is not to try to change the (Purdy) bridge or knock it down and replace it; it’s actually to build a new one further north along the lagoon, probably at 144th,” he said. A new bridge and route across the Burley Lagoon to Wauna would improve traffic flow and increase safety in all of those areas, including SR-16, he said.
Young also addressed concerns about increased traffic and population growth in the area.
“There is not going to be a lot of growth on the Key Peninsula and there never will be,” he said. “Outside rural activity zones, you’re limited to one unit per 10 acres. There are some lots that predate the Growth Management Act where you can still build on those small parcels, but you will not see the large-scale growth that you see in Gig Harbor.”
Because of that, he said, the county does not typically build new roads in rural areas, but may make an exception for the southern end of the Key Peninsula to provide an alternative to the KP Highway, which has been blocked by accidents on more than one occasion in the last year.
“There is a right of way there (between Jackson Lake Road NW and 186th NW) we can open up, but it will take some money and working with the property owners,” Young said. “I don’t know when we’re going to get it done, but once we get it on the (legislative priority) list this year, funding will be found,” he said. (See “County Update on Road Improvements,” KP News, June 2018.)
Many audience members told stories about increased property- and drug-related crimes and expressed their frustration with law enforcement response and what appears to be a “catch and release” policy when it comes to repeat offenders who return to the same neighborhoods soon after arrest.
“Pierce County has more felony charges than any other county in the entire state—more than even King County—but we’re doing it with half the judges, prosecutors and public defenders. That’s the reason we’re having difficulty,” Young said.
More than 75 percent of the county budget is spent on criminal justice and when the state requires counties to pay for other services, it is usually the criminal justice budget that is affected.
“We have adopted one single priority for the next (legislative) session and that is payment for criminal justice services,” Young said. “Washington is dead last in the entire Union for state support for criminal justice services. Four percent of it comes from the state, 96 from the local county government. In most states, it’s half. In Pierce County that would be about $10 million back into our budget.”
The sheriff’s department added 25 new positions since 2015 including five after the last legislative session. “We had planned on 10 but unfunded mandates prevented that,” Young said. The department also created a property crimes unit that has already had an impact. “We’re focused on career criminals who do the most harm, because when we lock one of them up it dramatically decreases the amount of property crime in that area,” he said.
The opioid epidemic and inadequate behavioral health services are also part of the problem, Young said.
“We (Pierce County) have, objectively, one of the worst behavioral health systems in the country,” he said. “A common metric for determining the health of the system is beds per capita: nationally that average is 24 beds per 100,000 residents. Washington state starts out as one of the worst with 16 statewide per 100,000. In Pierce County currently we have two.
“We’re about to get a little better with a joint partnership between MultiCare and Franciscan, which we also helped contribute to as a county,” Young said. “There will be a 120-bed psychiatric hospital completed later this year at the Allenmore campus in Tacoma, but we still need a lot more outpatient services and all of that takes resources.”
Finally, Young encouraged audience members to continue to report any suspicious or criminal activity and to call him if they are not satisfied with a response.
“If there’s a situation where you don’t feel you’re getting the proper response from the sheriff’s department, I encourage you to call our office,” Young said. “The process is sometimes opaque and you don’t see everything that’s going on, but if there are cases where we need to get a direct supervisor’s eyeballs on something, we will. In some cases there’s a good explanation and sometimes it’s not satisfactory, but at the very least we can try to get a response for you.”
Young can be reached at 253-798-6654 or through the Piece County Council website at www.co.pierce.wa.us under Government. He also has office hours at the KP Community Council office in Key Center on Fridays. Call for an appointment.