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Begalka: Mental health funding a bitter but necessary pill

Unless you are building roads, all too often you’re waiting in traffic for state funding.

Many of us are familiar with the “708” McHenry County Mental Health Board, which supports those with mental illness, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities. About 15 percent of its funding now goes toward people with developmental disabilities – far short of the demand, especially as the state has continued to trim its budget. So mental health leaders came up with alternative approach: A “377” board.

All of this money would go exclusively to helping those with developmental disabilities. After three years of planning, a countywide referendum tentatively is planned for April 2, 2013. Supporters hope the McHenry County Board votes this fall to place the question before voters.

If approved, the owner of a $200,000 house would pay about $66 a year, said Cindy Sullivan, executive director of Options & Advocacy for McHenry County and a leader in the spring referendum effort. The tax is expected to generate between $8 million and $9 million a year to be used for everything from home-based services to housing, technological upgrades to respite care.

It also might be able to parlay that money into even more funding through matching grants, said Sandy Lewis, executive director of the McHenry County Mental Health Board.

An added bonus is that plans are under way to administer the program cooperatively through the Mental Health Board. The funds would be kept separate, under the control of a three-person board appointed by the county. But it would share office space and administrative services. That means more money should go to clients, and that is critical. Sullivan estimated there are more than 5,200 individuals in the county with a developmental disability – a severe, chronic disability attributable to a mental or physical impairment.

There are 935 people receiving care now, but many more could use help. For example, there is a lengthy waiting list for a slot in one of the dozen group homes that now serve 89 people. The additional tax money, perhaps working in concert with Habitat for Humanity, could lead to additional group homes and additional opportunities. After all, it’s a fine line.

Mental health leaders estimate 408 people will require services in the event that something happens to their caregivers.

“It’s a recognition that if the state doesn’t have the resources and the community values its very vulnerable citizens, I think it is an equitable way to raise resources for this purpose,” Lewis said. “We, as a community, are the ones that are really impacted. There is a cost for people not being served in the form of additional police calls and visits to the hospital; and school costs when children with developmental disabilities and their families do not have access to critical services. We pay for that, too.”

Nevertheless, this promises to be tough sell in an environment when rising property taxes are forcing people out of their homes. But until the state Legislature modifies funding options to include income or sales taxes, this is what we’re stuck with. It would be refreshing, however, if a taxing body – any taxing body – threw taxpayers a bone.

“We want to be creative and use the dollars to the fullest extent possible,” Lewis said. “The state just expects us to do more and more with flat funding and increased accountability. It’s just such a ridiculous thing, with the state’s ability to supply dollars. It’s a heck of a way to do business.”

MONEYBALL

North Central Behavioral Health Systems was poised to assume the caseload of the now defunct Family Service & Mental Health Center in McHenry. But when the money – an $800,000 for psychiatry and $277,000 for alcohol and substance abuse counseling – disappeared, so did the deal.

So where did the money go?

Lewis learned last week that the county is on track to receive $505,200 for psychiatric services. But the Mental Health Board and the latest service provider to step up, Rockford-based Rosecrance Health Network, have no idea what happened to rest of the promised money. I suspect it will get pro-rated. But here’s hoping most makes it through to the new Rosecrance McHenry County.

In operation for just a week in the former Family Service headquarters in McHenry, Rosecrance McHenry County is headed by Chris Gleason – former Family Service director of clinical operations and a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor. He previously worked for Rosecrance in 2006.

Rosecrance spokeswoman Judy Emerson said her agency submitted a budget request to the Illinois Department of Human Services. She was reluctant to share estimates for the number of clients Rosecrance anticipates serving and the funding necessary to do it, but Emerson reiterated the nonprofit’s commitment to family counseling, behavioral therapy and drug/alcohol abuse treatment.

HEAR ME NOW?

Dave Barber, retiring director of the United Way of Greater McHenry County, has been spearheading an effort to bring “211” emergency phone service to northern Illinois. The idea behind the health and human services resource center is to route calls for service to the correct service provider. Barber said McHenry, Kane, Kendall and Lake counties, plus Barrington, have banded together for purposes of bidding out the project: A software fix at the phone routing center and then an estimated $60,000 annual cost to maintain a call center.

Barber said a request for proposal is being readied for a September letting. Regional United Ways have offered to fund the 211 emergency phone system. Similar systems already are operating in the Bloomington, East St. Louis and Quad Cities areas, as precursor to an eventual statewide system. Perhaps even some of the 911 monthly phone surcharge monies – totaling about $2.2 million a year in McHenry County – could be diverted toward the project. (Of course, that assumes the wireless charge of 74 cents a month continues past April.)

In the meantime, my hope is that the state makes good on its promises and funds all of these agencies at or near 100 percent. Sullivan said Options & Advocacy just received $30,000 of the $240,000 due to it from the state for services since February. So it appears hope does float. It’s just hard getting upstream without a paddle.

• Kurt Begalka is editor of the McHenry County Business Journal. He may be reached at kbegalka@shawmedia.com.

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