Some suburban voters will be asked in Tuesday’s election if they want to pay for better mental health services in their communities.
the townships of Addison, Naperville, Lisle and Winfield in the county of DuPage; the townships of Schaumburg and Wheeling in Cook County; Vernon Township in Lake County; and all of Will County will hold referendums on whether to establish property tax levies to fund mental health, developmental disabilities and addictions services.
It’s a question Lorri Grainawi, mental health specialist with the League of Women Voters of Illinois, has personally asked herself since the death of her 24-year-old son, Adam, in 2016, when he was struck by a train.
Adam struggled with schizophrenia for years. He had no case manager or social worker to help him follow his recovery plan. His mother believes his death was accidental but could have been avoided with aftercare services. She knows of other families who have experienced similar tragedies, and some who have received more help and are doing well.
A community mental health board, like those proposed by petition in Tuesday’s election, would provide grants to local agencies to provide such potentially life-saving services. Some 90 existing mental health boards in Illinois pay for services such as walk-in crisis centers, screening youth for mental illness, and social workers who help police departments deal with people in mental crisis.
“By doing it locally,” Grainawai said, “you are able to meet more local needs.”
Opponents counter that many agencies are already spending millions of dollars to provide such services. Federal Medicaid and Medicare, county health departments, and the Illinois Department of Human Services provide mental health services.
Dan Patlak, chairman of the Wheeling Township Republicans and a former township assessor, said commuters pay too much property tax. Local governments in Illinois had the second highest property tax rate among all states, according to WalletHub.
Similar to some other townships, Wheeling Township already awards about $575,000 in grants to social service agencies, much of it for behavioral and mental health and developmental disabilities, Patlak said.
“A lot of people, myself included, support the idea that mental health issues are serious and need to be addressed,” Patlak said. “Better to reallocate the money that’s already there, than to tax people more and hurt their ability to support their families, and businesses to stay and employ people.”
Conservative business owner Richard Uihlein donated $25,000 to oppose the measure, Patlak said. Opponents sent letters to registered voters in Wheeling Township.
The proposed tax increase is small compared to most other government units, such as schools. Under state law, referendum proposals for mental health boards have a maximum property tax rate of 0.15%. but these tips usually charge at a lower rate. Wheeling Township advocates are asking for a 0.026% tax rate to collect $1.5 million, for an estimated tax of about $28 on a home worth $335,000.
In Milton Township, voters narrowly approved a mental health council in 2021. Geri Kerger, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in DuPage County, said her tax bill for the council was $21 for the year.
But any mental health board would be appointed by the township supervisor, and no one knows what tax rate it will settle on, Patlak said. If they choose the maximum rate in Wheeling Township, he calculated, the tax bill for an average home would be much higher, at $151, or for a business, $375.
Regardless of how they are funded, the needs for mental health care far exceed their availability.
In Illinois, thousands of people with developmental disabilities are on a years-long waiting list for services.
Nationally, 14 million people had a serious mental illness in the past year and 40 million had a substance use disorder – but only a fraction of them got help for these problems, according to a federal survey.
It’s no coincidence that overdose deaths have soared and the nationwide suicide rate has risen 4% in 2021, to around 48,000 people – more than double the number of homicides – the increase being most pronounced in young adults.
Kerger said the nation is in a mental health crisis that has only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said mental health council-funded programs include recovery specialists who can help people develop a recovery plan and connect them with services to do so.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ educational programs in high schools, she said, include people recovering from substance abuse or mental illness.
“Kids know people who are sick and think there’s nothing they can do,” Kerger said. “They give you hope to recover.”