Mental health programs start in some suburbs after property tax hikes approved

Publicly subsidized counseling, therapy and medical care soon will be available in select Chicago suburbs…

Publicly subsidized counseling, therapy and medical care soon will be available in select Chicago suburbs after voters approved property taxes for new mental health programs.

Mental health boards were approved by referendums Tuesday in Schaumburg, Wheeling and Vernon townships, three DuPage County townships and for all of Will County. Voters narrowly rejected the proposal in Winfield Township.

The measures call for the creation of mental health boards, appointed by county or township supervisors. The boards typically would conduct a needs assessment, then set a budget and a tax levy. The revenue would fund grants to service providers for mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse.

State law allows tax rates up to 0.15% of equalized assessed value, but boards typically set lower rates, a fraction of the average overall county property tax rate of 1.73 in Illinois, according to tax-rates.com.

In Vernon Township, for instance, the rate was set by the referendum at up to 0.037%, for a cost of about $49 to the average homeowner, officials estimated, while raising almost $1.5 million a year. Will County limited the rate to 0.05%.

Upon approval by township or county boards, the mental health boards will distribute the money in grants to service providers for domestic violence, alcoholism, autism, behavioral and emotional issues.

Statewide, there are dozens of local mental health boards, which collectively raise more than $74 million annually, the Association of Community Mental Health Authorities of Illinois calculated. Cook County has at least eight townships and the city of Evanston with such programs, and Kane County has nine townships, while Kendall and McHenry counties have countywide programs.

Lorri Grainawai, who passed out flyers in support of the measure in Arlington Heights, said taxpayers already pay for mental health services when it’s reached a crisis, she said, such as at Cook County Jail. Sheriff Tom Dart has said it’s the largest mental health care provider in the state, with some 2,000 inmates suffering from serious mental illness.

Advocates believe mental health programs will save money in the long run by helping people get stable, get jobs and stay out of trouble.

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Grainawai cited one young person in special education who got off disability payments and is now working and looking to buy a first home.

“Everyone knows somebody who’s been affected (by mental health problems), and how difficult it is to get services,” Grainawi said. “People recognize the need, and there’s good in people’s hearts.”

Anti-tax groups didn’t doubt the need, but questioned why the funding doesn’t come from existing state resources. One reason is that the state budget increasingly is going to underfunded pensions rather than services, said Bryce Hill, director of fiscal and economic research for the conservative Illinois Policy Institute.

“This crowding out of state services is why local governments are so reliant on property taxes to fund things like this,” he said.

But one advantage of local programs is local control, with services tailored to meet the needs of residents, including family members affected by a loved one’s behavior, advocates said.

With monthslong waits for psychiatrists, drop-in services can be offered for people with anxiety or depression who needs someone to talk to before reaching a crisis, said, Geri Kerger, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in DuPage.

“A lot of people have been working to make this happen,” she said, “because they understand the value of these services.”