Some suburban voters in Tuesday’s election will be asked if they want to pay for better mental health services in their communities.
Addison, Naperville, Lisle and Winfield in DuPage County; Schaumburg and Wheeling townships in Cook County; City of Vernon in Lake County; and all of Will County will hold referendums on whether to enact property taxes to fund mental health, developmental disabilities and addiction services.
It’s a question that Lorri Grainawi, a mental health specialist with the League of Women Voters of Illinois, took personally after the death of her 24-year-old son Adam in 2016 when he was struck by a train.
Adam struggled with schizophrenia for years. He had no guardian or social worker to help him follow his recovery plan. His mother believes his death was accidental, but may have been prevented with follow-up services. She knows other families who have gone through similar tragedies, and some who have gotten more help and are doing well.
A community mental health board, like those proposed in a petition on Tuesday’s ballot, would provide grants to local agencies to provide such potentially life-saving services. About 90 existing Illinois mental health boards pay for things like crisis intake centers, youth screening for mental illness and social workers who help police departments deal with people in mental crisis.
“By doing it locally,” Grainawai said, “you’re able to serve more local needs.”
Opponents counter that many agencies already spend millions of dollars providing such services. Federal Medicaid and Medicare, county health departments, and the Illinois Department of Human Services provide mental health services.
Dan Patlak, president of the Wheeling Township Republicans and a former township assessor, said suburbanites pay too much in property taxes. Local governments in Illinois have the second-highest property tax rate among all states, according to WalletHub.
Like some other municipalities, Wheeling Township already gives about $575,000 in grants to social service agencies, much of it for behavioral and mental health and intellectual disabilities, Patlak said.
“A lot of people, myself included, are sympathetic to the idea that mental health issues are serious and should be addressed,” Patlak said. “Better to redistribute the money that’s already there than to tax people more and hurt their ability to support their families and businesses to stay and hire people.”
Conservative business owner Richard Wiline donated $25,000 to oppose the measure, Patlak said. Opponents sent letters to registered voters in Wheeling Township.
The proposed tax increase is small compared to most other government entities, such as schools. Under state law, mental health board referendum proposals have a maximum property tax rate of 0.15%. but such advice is generally taxed at a lower rate. Wheeling Township advocates are calling for a tax rate of 0.026 percent to raise $1.5 million, for an estimated tax of about $28 on a home valued at $335,000.
In Milton Township, voters approved a small mental health board in 2021. Gerry Kerger, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in DuPage County, said her board tax bill is $21 for the year.
But each mental health board will be appointed by the township supervisor, and no one knows what tax rate it will stop at, Patlak said. If they chose the maximum rate in Wheeling Township, he estimated, the tax bill for the average home would be much higher, at $151, or for a business, $375.
However funded, the need for mental health care far exceeds the availability.
In Illinois, thousands of people with developmental disabilities are on a long waiting list for services.
Nationally, 14 million people had a serious mental illness in the past year, and 40 million had a substance use disorder — but only a fraction of them got help for those problems, a federal study found.
Not coincidentally, overdose deaths rose sharply and the national suicide rate rose 4% in 2021 to about 48,000 people — more than twice the number of homicides — with the increase most pronounced among young adults .
Kerger said the nation is in a mental health crisis that is only getting worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said programs funded by mental health boards include recovery specialists who can help people put together a recovery plan and connect them with services to do so.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ educational programs in high schools, she said, include people living in recovery from substance abuse or mental illness.
“Kids know people who are sick, and they think there’s nothing they can do,” Kerger said. “They give you hope to recover.”