'You cannot overfund this': Milton Township officials debate mental health spending
As many as 60 to 70 people linger on waiting lists to receive services through mental health centers in Wheaton and Carol Stream.
Those counseling centers, run by Outreach Community Ministries, are available to those with and without health insurance.
"There isn't a time that Outreach isn't carrying a waiting list," Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Roth said.
Outreach has joined other nonprofit providers in urging Milton Township to adopt a funding proposal to help make mental health care and addiction treatment more accessible.
A new mental health board dedicated to that purpose initially asked the township to collect $1.125 million in additional property taxes for its first budget. The board planned to use the money to provide social service grants as well as for administrative costs, community education and professional training.
Advocates say the funding is desperately needed as they tackle a range of challenges: growing demand for services, rising overdose deaths, high turnover among therapists and limited options for free or low-cost mental health care. Private fundraising also was curtailed during the pandemic.
"Nonprofits have also gone through a fairly seismic shift from the economic and psychological fallout from COVID," said Bill Peterson, development director for SamaraCare Counseling, which serves clients who are uninsured or underinsured. "Many are not getting the funding they need now."
But township officials have pared back the levy request, resulting in a much smaller pool of grant money.
Township trustees and Supervisor John Monino tentatively agreed to raise property taxes by roughly $800,000 for the 708 mental health board, named for a state House resolution and created by a referendum vote last spring. A final decision on the tax levy is expected on Dec. 14.
Kara Murphy, one of seven members appointed to the mental health board, called the original funding proposal a "meaningful, but judicious recommendation."
"I would have been thrilled to have that number approved, but I also am resolute that the board will do all that they can with the resources that were provided," said Murphy, president of the nonprofit DuPage Health Coalition.
As a starting point, the mental health board compiled a list of 50 potential grant recipients -- a "conservative number," Murphy said. The list includes providers of mental health, disability and addiction services.
"There's no question that there are 50 or more agencies that could be candidates for this kind of funding," Murphy said.
But township trustees were wary of allocating more money for the first grant cycle, though Monino said the board's request wasn't "out of line."
"I think that $1 million is a bit much right now," said Trustee Jeff Castle, adding that he wanted to see what the board will do next year with the township funding.
Trustees gave preliminary approval to a tax increase that would cost the owner of a home with an assessed value of $128,444 -- the average in Milton Township -- an estimated $17.60. The township covers all or parts of Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Carol Stream, Lombard, Glendale Heights and Winfield.
"It strikes the right balance between fiscal responsibility and providing for the needs of the community," Trustee Dan Milinko said of the lower amount.
The mental health board will now have to go back to the drawing board and "try to figure out how to get as many of those dollars directly into the hands of" local agencies, Murphy said.
Some advocates have already suggested specific ways of using the grant money.
The Glen Ellyn Public Library, for instance, could hire a full-time social worker at a cost of about $88,000 annually to help refer patrons to services, Amy Franco, adult department director, said.
A $100,000 grant would translate into more than 800 hours of therapy services for kids, said Tom Lettenberger, board treasurer for Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, which provides early diagnosis and interventions for children with special needs.
Glen Ellyn Police Chief Phil Norton sits on the board of the Glen Ellyn Youth and Family Counseling Service, a parent-led organization. Since Sept. 11, three people have died by suicide in Glen Ellyn, two of them teenagers, Norton said.
"This needs to stop. We can train our officers. We can find appropriate counselors, but we need your help," Norton told township trustees last week. "You cannot overfund this."
The referendum question establishing the mental health board was placed on election ballots last spring through a petition drive organized by a group of residents. The measure passed by a margin of 237 votes -- 50.7% of the total.
The board expects to develop its budget in late winter or spring. The first tax dollars will come in May. The board aims to create an application process and distribute grant funding in fall 2022, Murphy said.