Voters backed creation of a mental health board last year. Now they may have to do it again.

Mental health advocates cheered the success in a referendum last fall that created a community mental health board in Wheeling Township.

But now they are devastated by the news that because of an apparent flaw in the referendum's wording, the township may not be able to levy a tax to fund the new board without voters' approval in another referendum.

Community mental health boards - otherwise known as 708 boards - are appointed panels that levy property taxes to fund local organizations and initiatives addressing mental health needs in their communities.

Voters last year approved the creation of 708 boards in Addison, Lisle, Naperville, Schaumburg, Wheeling and Vernon townships, as well as Will County.

But now questions are emerging about that vote in Wheeling Township. According to township attorney Kenneth Florey, while the part of the referendum question creating the panel met the legal standard, the part giving it taxing authority did not because it was missing language required by the property tax code.

If the township levies the tax anyhow, he said, it could face potentially bankrupting lawsuits.

The remedy is a second referendum with the correct wording. Florey said the first time that could happen is in the fall of 2024. That means the earliest the township could levy taxes for the mental health board would be in 2025, for funds collected in 2026.

"Needless to say, we are very disappointed that at this point in time, the mental health board will not be able to levy the tax to fund the work it's been tasked to do," advocate Lorri Grainawi said.

The mental health board meeting Wednesday was packed with advocates who strongly object to the township's interpretation of the law, including Grainawi.

"The voters approved not only the mental health board but a clearly stated intent for a new tax to fund the new board," she said.

Audience and mental health members also accused township officials of not being transparent about the issue.

Board member James Ruffatto said it is inexcusable that the board found out about the problem only through a memo "with no explanation."

"Honestly, many of us are frustrated, upset and feel like the township is going out of their way not to levy a tax," Arlington Heights resident Tracy Sherva added. "It almost feels sneaky, kind of behind the scenes, hoping that no one will notice."

Florey noted that even without the mental health board's tax levy, the township already has more than $500,000 that it manages for mental health every year.

Mental health board Chairman Jack Vrett vowed to soldier on despite the setback.

"I want to assure you that every single member of this board believes very strongly in the statutory duties of this board, and that no matter what happens, we will remain committed to fulfilling our obligations to the community, making sure that we will not rest, we will not stop," he said.

  Wheeling Township Community Mental Health Board member James Ruffatto, left, speaks with township attorney Kenneth Florey at Wednesday's board meeting in Arlington Heights. Steve Zalusky/
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