With opposition emerging, 708 mental health board supporters press their case
Voters in several suburban townships and one county will decide Nov. 8 whether to authorize a tax increase to fund new community boards empaneled to address local mental health needs.
Proponents say the panels, known as 708 boards, will help fill gaps in local mental health assistance and provide a dedicated and sustained funding source for community-based agencies that provide those services. Panel members would be appointed by the elected township and county boards, which also would set the tax levy and approve grants.
The cost to taxpayers, they say, is minimal -- as little as $25 more per year.
But opponents say the boards will add a burden to taxpayers already struggling with higher prices, and they argue that funding for mental health services should instead come from existing entities, such as the federal and state governments.
Addison, Lisle, Naperville, Schaumburg, Wheeling, Winfield and Vernon townships and Will County all have community health board referendum questions on the ballot next week.
Opposition has sprouted in some of those areas, including Wheeling Township, where former township assessor Dan Patlak is helping to lead the effort.
"The idea of providing additional funding for mental health care is a good one," said Patlak, president of the Republicans of Wheeling Township. "And I think the people that are proponents of the referendum have their heart in the right place. But I think their mistake is that they're asking taxpayers to foot the bill for additional funding, when the money is already there."
Patlak said federal, state, county and municipal governments already put money into health care. Proponents of the 708 boards should ask those bodies to re-prioritize their spending for mental health, he said.
The group has organized a committee and received $25,000 in contributions from billionaire businessman Richard Uihlein of Lake Forest.
Opponents also note that townships already provide mental health services. Wheeling Township, for example, provided more than $575,000 in funding to 26 nonprofit organizations, most of which offer mental health services, according to a township newsletter.
Backers of the 708 boards say that's not enough.
"The need is greater than what they have," said Arlen Gould, who also serves on the Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 school board.
The added funding, he said, could provide services such as a center operated by a local nonprofit agency where police could take someone in crisis, instead of jail.
"It would allow the police to bring that individual to special care, to determine if they can be talked down, if they are able to go home that night or if they need an overnight solution," Gould said. "That doesn't exist today. And so people go back out on the street with the same emotional issues, often, that they had that brought them in the first place."
Supporters of the referendum questions have accused some opponents of misleading voters about the financial impacts of a "yes" vote. That includes a recent Wheeling Township newsletter that, they say, falsely implies it could raise property taxes 270%.
"It's very frustrating to see what we've worked so hard for to be taken and twisted the way that it is," said Arlington Heights resident Lorri Grainawi, a member of the legislative committee of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Illinois.
"What they're putting out there makes it sound almost as if people's taxes are going to go up 270%. That's far from the truth," she said.
Grainawi said the group is advocating for the tax to generate $1.5 million annually, while the newsletter suggests it could be more than five times that amount.
"The only way it would ever get to $8 million is if the Wheeling Township board wanted it to be that high," she said.
Opposition also has cropped up in DuPage County, where Winfield Township Supervisor Nicole Prater has told voters that if the tax increase proposal passes, the township could levy almost three times its current level.
Prater said she believes mental health is important but the 708 board would duplicate existing services. For example, she said, DuPage County already has a state-of-the-art mental health facility in Wheaton, and the township directly supports the Wayne/Winfield Area Youth/Family Services Mission, or WAYS Mission.
"I'm a veteran, for crying out loud. I've had friends commit suicide over things that they need to be able to at least talk to people (about)," she said.
But Roselle resident Michael Murray, who was part of the group that organized the successful campaign for a 708 board in Bloomingdale Township, said state statute does not allow duplication of existing funding.
"(Opponents) are grossly exaggerating the impact of it. And I think they're taking an ideological stance and not talking about the benefit that will be derived," he said.