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Mental health funding may be jeopardized by faulty tax referendums in suburbs

Chicago Tribune - 8/29/2023

Funding for treatment of substance abuse, mental health and developmental disability in a half-dozen suburban townships and Will County may be in jeopardy due to concerns that the voter referendums that created them were illegitimate.

Officials were scrambling last week to respond to the problem, and hope that a legislative fix could avoid having to hold the referendums again.

Last fall, voters approved proposals to create property tax levies to fund mental health programs in Addison, Lisle, Naperville, Schaumburg, Wheeling and Vernon Hills townships, and Will County.

Recently, Wheeling Township attorney Kenneth Florey raised concerns that the referendum language did not require elements required by the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law, or PTELL. That law calls for ballots for referendums on new taxes to include various details the referendums generally did not, including the tax rate and the dollar amount it would cost for a property value of $100,000.

Vernon Township officials said they believe they met those standards on their ballot. But at least some of the other referendums, such as Wheeling and Schaumburg townships, cited tax rates “not to exceed” .15%, the maximum allowed by state law, and did not specify how much that would cost in dollars.

The issue first came to widespread attention in 2021 when a Kane County judge ruled that Dundee Township had to meet the referendum requirements to fund its mental health boards.

That decision came after Kane County Clerk John Cunningham refused to extend the tax despite voter approval, and despite a prior Illinois Supreme Court ruling that a clerk’s tax duties are purely ministerial, and may not determine whether taxes have been legally assessed.

State lawmakers approved a measure to validate those referendums. Now, legislators against are considering whether to pass new legislation to validate the new referendums in the fall session.

Florey warned that such legislation may be insufficient. Either way, the dilemma puts the townships in the position of possibly being sued and having their tax levies be found illegal.

“It’s a really hard position for the township to be in,” Florey said. “I feel bad, everybody supports the mental health initiative, but Wheeling has to face the risk of a challenge.”

Schaumburg Township Supervisor Tim Heneghan took a different view. He said the referendums followed the Community Mental Health Act, which created the mental health funding, and which specifies that the ballot should state the tax rate would be “not more than .15%.”

The funding is desperately needed to fight recent surges in mental illness and opioid overdoses, he said. In any event, he said, “It sounds like a legislative fix is in the works. We want to do the right thing and not have to go back to the drawing board.”

But the clock is ticking. Taxing bodies have until early December to set their taxes for next year. If they miss the deadline, they would miss out on tax collections next year, and wouldn’t be able to fund the programs.

Some opponents of the programs, like Dan Patlak, president of the Wheeling Township Republicans, have argued that the townships, along with county, state and federal governments, already fund mental health, and should not be creating a new bureaucracy. Conservative business owner Richard Uihlein donated $25,000 to oppose the measure, and opponents sent mailers to registered voters in Wheeling Township.

Lorri Grainawi, who pushed for the referendum in Wheeling Township, suspects political opposition contributed to the legal objections to the referendum, sayig that the township is lagging most others in getting the program going. Advocates there had called for a tax rate of 0.026% to raise $1.5 million, for an estimated tax of roughly $28 on a home worth $335,000.

Whatever the outcome of the referendums, the need for mental health care far outweighs availability. In Illinois, thousands of people with developmental disabilities are on a years-long waiting list for services.

Nationally, 14 million people had serious mental illness, and 40 million had a substance use disorder — but only a fraction of those got help for those problems, a federal survey found.

Statewide, most counties have mental health boards and tax levies, according to the Association of Community Mental Health Authorities of Illinois. To get started, most of the newly approved townships have appointed mental health boards who are checking with stakeholders like the police, firefighters, social workers and counselors to determine what services need funding.

Long-time Wheeling Community Consolidated School Board District 21 member Arlen Gould, a former special education teacher, said advocates wonder why the issue is just being raised now, shortly before levy time.

“It’s unfortunate because the need is so great,” he said. “Our schools are having to gear up in ways we never thought to deal with behavior and mental health issues of kids coming out of the pandemic.”

Addison Township Supervisor Dennis Rebolletti, an attorney, said the referendums are presumed to be law unless there is a court ruling otherwise.

“This puts everybody in a trick bag,” he said. “(But) I believe eventually this will be affirmed. We’re moving forward, following the law as it is. I don’t get to make the decision whether it’s constitutional or not. That’s what the people in the black robes get paid for.”

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