Why mental health is on the ballot in the suburbs this fall

A rise in opioid abuse, the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, an uptick in suicide and recent mass shootings are among the factors that have pushed mental health issues to the forefront of the public mind.

With tax referendums to fund mental health services on the Nov. 8 ballot in several suburban townships, voters' willingness to reach into their pockets to pay for those services will be put to the test.

Voters in Wheeling, Vernon, Schaumburg, Lisle, Winfield, Addison and Naperville townships and Will County will be asked in November to approve the creation of 708 mental health boards and establish a new property tax to pay for them. The volunteer boards, appointed by their respective townships, would use the tax dollars to fund grants for local agencies that address issues including mental illness, substance use disorders and developmental disabilities.

"This is the most influential thing that we can do as a township to create a safety net for our community," said Lisle Township Supervisor Diane Hewitt.

The need for that safety net is becoming urgent, she said.

"The opioid epidemic and COVID have laid bare the holes in our mental health system," Hewitt said, citing data from the DuPage County Coroner's Office indicating an increase in overdoses and suicides.

Under Illinois law, the tax for a 708 board cannot exceed 0.15% of a property's assessed value. In Schaumburg and Wheeling townships, advocates say that would amount to an additional $25 a year for the owner of a typical home.

There are about 80 such panels in Illinois, named 708 boards after the state legislation that authorized their creation. Among the places they exist are Bloomingdale, Milton and Hanover townships and McHenry County.

Amanda Teachout, mental health board manager for the Hanover Township 708, said its clients include the Family Service Association of Greater Elgin and Marklund, which provides residential and day services for people with disabilities at its Wasmond Center in Elgin.

"I have always said that I think 708 boards are Illinois' best-kept secret," she said.

Their success has led to the growing effort to establish 708 boards elsewhere, said Geri Kerger, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) DuPage.

"I think the word has gotten out that it is a very inexpensive way to get great things done," she said.

NAMI DuPage, which has received a grant from the Bloomingdale Township 708 board, offers programs including mental health education for high school students and an employment initiative that helps people with mental illness with job coaching and resume writing.

Hollis Gorrie, vice president of program services for Arlington Heights-based Clearbrook, said the agency has received 708 funds from the McHenry County board for its Clearbrook West community mental health center and is developing a facility that could be funded by the 708 board in Hanover Township.

Addison-based Northeast DuPage Family and Youth Services receives funding from the Bloomingdale Township 708 board for programs including a collaboration with the Glendale Heights and Bloomingdale police departments that embeds therapists with officers to serve residents with mental health issues.

Ron Melka, executive director of the Lyons Township Mental Health Commission, said a 708 board can fill gaps where state, federal and other sources do not provide assistance, or not enough assistance.

But even with heightened public concern over mental health, 708 board referendums may encounter some opposition, said Arthur Lurigio, senior associate dean for faculty at Loyola University's College of Arts and Sciences.

"I expect people will complain about costs," said Lurigio, a psychologist with a background in community mental health.

Linda Springer, senior clinical director of behavioral health at the Kenneth Young Center in Schaumburg, said the good news is there is less stigma surrounding mental health issues today than 35 years ago.

Proponents insist the annual cost to taxpayers will be minimal, equivalent to what one might pay for lunch.

Kerger, who lives in Milton Township in central DuPage County, said her latest annual tax for the local 708 board was $21.

Milton Township's 708 board runs on an $800,000 budget, $700,000 of which is devoted to funding awards, with the rest funding administration costs.

"A lot of the success will depend on who is serving on the 708 mental health boards," Lurigio said, "It should be composed of members of the community from different quarters."

The Milton board fits the bill, with members including attorneys, a DuPage County employee, a township trustee and a pastor.

Shannon Hartnett, president of the Milton Township 708 board, said that if the Nov. 8 referendums fail, local providers won't be able to reach as many people.

"The need for mental health services has just exploded in the last couple of years. Every agency has a waitlist," she said.

That list at Northeast DuPage Family and Youth Services is about two months long, which Hartnett said is short compared to other agencies.

"We need to be able to hire people to meet the need, and you need money to hire people," she said.

  Clients of Arlington Heights-based Clearbrook, which provides services to children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, pose for a photo at an agency facility in Palatine. Clearbrook is among the suburban agencies that receive money through 708 mental health boards. Brian Hill/
  Clearbrook client Debbie shreds documents Thursday at one of the Arlington Heights-based agency's facilities. Clearbrook is among the suburban agencies that receive money through 708 mental health boards. Brian Hill/
  Clearbrook client Tracy holds a thank-you card that her team was working on at one of the Arlington Heights-based agency's facilities. Clearbrook is among the suburban agencies that receive money through 708 mental health boards. Brian Hill/
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