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Reporter's Notebook: Breast cancer funding

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McHenry County Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty had the County Board over a barrel Tuesday when it came to restoring cuts to breast and cervical cancer screening.

As I wrote in today's paper, a number of board members were not happy with McNulty coming before the board to ask that $40,000 be restored to the program in the last six weeks of the 2011 fiscal year. It passed Tuesday morning, 17-5, just one vote more than the two-thirds majority needed for an emergency appropriation.

But displeasure aside, who wants to be the politician with a primary looming who votes against funding during the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month? Who wants to be stingy with $40,000 when the County Board has more than $47 million in reserve?

And who wants to vote no on the same morning that the Northwest Herald printed in pink to raise awareness, as County Board member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, pointed out? (For the record, the pink newspaper on the morning of the vote was coincidence.)

The main opposition to restoring the funding came from the members of the Finance and Audit Committee who opposed it. Chairman Scott Breeden, R-Lakewood, made clear his support of cancer screening, noting that he lost both his parents in their fifties to the disease. But he said that McNulty was going around the established budget process that has kept the county solvent while so many others in Illinois are not.

Both Breeden and John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, told McNulty that he had a responsibility to try to live within the cuts.

"I believe it's incumbent on administrators, when the County Board cuts a line item, that they spend less money during that year," Hammerand said.

Neither Breeden nor Hammerand fully accepted McNulty's explanation that he was told he could return to the County Board to ask for more at the end of the year, depending on what the county had left to give. Both members alleged that McNulty did not bother to rein anything in as a result: Breeden said it looked to him like simply coming back was what the health department had in mind "all along," while Hammerand said McNulty "did not expend in a forthright manner."

It was the precedent, not the money, that had opponents just as concerned. If the County Board undid one budget cut for a good cause, other departments may try to follow the health department's lead. "All the other departments will be back at us," Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, said.

But other board members rallied to support the program. Public Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Virginia Peschke, R-Woodstock, chided board members for not seeing the difference between regular county programs and others, like this one, "where lives are involved."

Peschke said that the money has run out not because of bad planning, but because the program is popular and getting more so every year. The program saw 400 cases when it started in 2007, and saw more than 1,000 for the first half of this year. Eleven women so far this year were diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer.

"[The funding] isn't, 'We want to buy computers or increase our space,' or anything of the sort," Peschke said.

Board member Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, pointed out the county's healthy cash reserve, which can fund almost seven months of operations.

"Forty thousand out of that total reserve seems insignificant," McCann said.

The lone audience member who spoke during public comment prior to the debate indirectly reminded board members that rejecting restoring funding would come with a political cost next year. Audience member Terry Kappel, who asked the board to restore the $40,000, is running as a Democrat for County Board next year.

"In my opinion, screening women in need ... that's not [budget] fat. That's a program there to provide a needed service in the community who can't afford it otherwise," Kappel said.

There were two proposed amendments to the health department's request. While County Board member Nick Provenzano in the end voted in favor of restoring funding, he proposed an amendment for the county and McNulty to first scour the health department's budget to see if $40,000 could be found. The amendment died on a 9-13 vote.

A motion by Hammerand to restore only $26,000 was resoundingly defeated by voice vote.

Senior Reporter Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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