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Mental health programs begin in some suburbs after property tax hikes are approved

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

Mental health councils were approved in referendums Tuesday in Schaumburg, Wheeling and Vernon townships, three DuPage County townships and throughout Will County. Voters narrowly rejected the proposal in the town of Winfield.

The measures provide for the creation of mental health councils, which are appointed by county or town leaders. Councils usually conduct a needs assessment, then set a budget and tax levy. Proceeds will fund grants to mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse service providers.

State law allows tax rates of up to 0.15% of the adjusted assessed value, but councils 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 example, the referendum rate was set at 0.037%, costing the average homeowner about $49, while netting nearly $1.5 million a year. Will County has capped the rate at 0.05%.

Once approved by township or county councils, mental health boards will distribute grant money to service providers dealing with domestic violence, alcoholism, autism, behavioral and emotional problems.

There is on a state scale dozens of local mental health boards, which collectively raise more than $74 million annually, according to the Illinois Association of Community Mental Health Agencies. Cook County has at least eight townships and the city of Evanston with such programs, Kane County has nine townships, while Kendall and McHenry counties have countywide programs.

Lori Grynova, who handed out fliers in support of the measure in Arlington Heights, said taxpayers already pay for mental health services when there is a crisis, such as at the Cook County Jail. Sheriff Tom Dart said it is the largest provider of mental health services in the state, with about 2,000 inmates suffering from serious mental illness.

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

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Grainavoy mentioned one young man in special education who lost his disability benefits and is now working and looking to buy his first home.

“Everybody knows somebody who is suffering (with mental health issues), and how hard it is to get services,” Grainavi said. “People are aware of the need and there is goodness in people’s hearts.”

Anti-tax groups did not question the need, but questioned why the funding did not come from existing government resources. One reason is that the state budget is increasingly going toward underfunded pensions rather than services, said Bryce Hill, director of fiscal and economic research at the conservative Illinois Policy Institute.

“This crowding out of public services is the reason local governments are so dependent on property taxes to fund things like this,” he said.

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

Because of the months-long wait for psychiatrists, walk-in services can be offered to people with anxiety or depression who need someone to talk to before they reach a crisis, according to Jerry Kerger, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in DuPage.

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


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