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Mental Health Board’s way at stake

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 9:59 a.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – The fact that 15 people have applied for four open seats on the McHenry County Mental Health Board is no coincidence to its critics.

To Patrick Maynard, president and CEO of Pioneer Center for Human Services, it’s a public cry for more transparency and fiscal accountability from the board that collects and disburses – and spends – property-tax money.

Maynard, who heads the county’s largest social service agency, was one of three speakers who told the McHenry County Board to seize the opportunity for reform. The County Board appoints Mental Health Board members.

Critics have alleged over the years that the agency has become a bloated bureaucracy more interested in spending tax money on itself than doling it out to agencies that work with the mentally disabled, which is what it was created by voters to do.

“The community is aware and concerned and wants to see a change,” Maynard told board members last week.

The Mental Health Board has heard the complaints before, and Interim Executive Director Todd Schroll stressed Wednesday that the agency is a good and transparent steward of taxpayer funds.

“This is not new. We’ve responded to these comments before,” Schroll said. “My biggest concern is the inaccuracies in some of these.”

The County Board’s Public Health and Human Services Committee met Wednesday morning to discuss the process by which to fill the four seats on the nine-member board. Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, said she hopes the committee will have recommendations for a full board vote by the end of February.

Two Mental Health Board members stepped down, and two others are reapplying for their seats because their terms have expired.

Kurtz, herself a longtime critic of the Mental Health Board’s operations and spending, said the choices made by the seven-member committee will be important, but declined to comment further to preserve the integrity of the selection process.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important than selecting people who can allocate $13 million in discretionary funds in an equitable manner that best meets the needs of our mental health community,” Kurtz said.

The Mental Health Board vacancies come at a time of significant change of leadership. The board announced in August that it was losing three of its top administrative leaders.

Executive Director Sandy Lewis left Nov. 9 to become an assistant professor of psychiatry and executive director of a children’s mental health center at Virginia Commonwealth University. When it announced Lewis’ departure in August, the board also announced the retirements of Deputy Director Bob Lesser and Clinical Director Liz Doyle.

McHenry-based Pioneer Center is one of several agencies in recent years that have criticized how the Mental Health Board spends money it gets from a special countywide property tax. Homeowners pay about 14.4 cents per $100 in assessed valuation to fund the board, or about $87 a year for the owner of a $200,000 home who takes the homestead exemption.

A Jan. 13 financial report showed that while the Mental Health Board doled out $8.7 million to social service agencies in the 2012 fiscal year, it kept more than $4.4 million for itself – one-third of its $13.1 million in revenue from taxes, Medicaid and other sources.

Schroll’s comment about inaccuracies stemmed from critics who have alleged that the board spends about half of its revenue internally. Its 2011 annual report put the actual amount spent on administrative costs at about 6 percent, Schroll said.

“The majority of our money is going out to our local partners, and it’s going directly to local consumers of mental health services,” Schroll said.

Client agencies have criticized Mental Health Board decisions such as spending $4 million to almost triple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters at a time when social service agencies are struggling because of a sluggish economy and state government owing billions statewide in unpaid bills.

The county’s largest mental health service provider, Family Service and Community Mental Health Center, collapsed last year under financial strain.

Ron McHone, a Crystal Lake certified public accountant and concerned taxpayer, was one of several speakers who pointed Family Service’s fate out to the County Board.

“In the last year, there has been a collapse of the biggest treatment agency in the county while at the same time the Mental Health Board has built a huge complex that is staffed by over 38 employees who do not provide treatment services,” McHone said.

Maynard said the size of the Mental Health Board’s staff is two to three times that of similar boards statewide.

Thirty-three employees are listed on the Mental Health Board’s website – the number had been closer to 50, but employees were let go as of this fiscal year with the end of a federal grant and reassessment of administrative roles, Schroll said.

But critics have questioned the Mental Health Board on other, smaller expenses.

Lewis’ departure as executive director was announced shortly after she received her doctorate from the George Williams College of Education at Aurora University, for which the board paid at least $30,000 in tuition and expenses, according to bills obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The board late last year seriously considered entering a contract with Virginia Commonwealth University, her new employer, to pay $150 an hour, not to exceed $15,000, to consult Lewis regarding finding a successor, according to a copy of the agreement obtained under FOIA. While the board voted unanimously to approve the contract pending legal review, the proposed deal was never finalized.

The timing of this latest debate over the Mental Health Board may have political consequences, as well. McHenry County voters will be asked in the April 9 election to create another board and tax levy to fund agencies serving people with developmental disabilities.

Supporters of creating a “377 Board” have stressed that they intend to keep overhead as low as possible should voters approve the referendum. Maynard, whose Pioneer Center supports the referendum, said this is an important distinction.

“I think that’s the one thing the 377 initiative has to clearly say – this is totally separate,” Maynard said.

The County Board has one voting seat on the Mental Health Board. The County Board earlier this month appointed member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, as its liaison. Her predecessor lost her 2012 re-election bid.

The Mental Health Board hopes to appoint Lewis’ successor by March.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect that the proposed contract between the Mental Health Board and Virginia Commonwealth University was never finalized.

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