County's mental health chief on hot seat

WOODSTOCK – McHenry County Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis could face a battle to stay on the board if his Wednesday interview was any indicator.

Ellis was grilled by the McHenry County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee – specifically Chairwoman Donna Kurtz – over the Mental Health Board’s budget, spending and transparency.

Ellis was the first of a dozen candidates interviewing for four open seats on the nine-member board. He is one of two incumbents reapplying for an expiring term.

Kurtz, the newly appointed committee chairwoman and a longtime critic of the Mental Health Board’s spending practices, started by asking Ellis why the amount for administrative costs has increased from 8.7 percent of the budget in 2008 to 19 percent in 2012. Almost $2.4 million of the board’s $13.15 million in revenue last year was listed in administrative line items.

“In essence, what we’re seeing is an escalation, pretty dramatic, of personnel costs and administrative costs,” said Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake. “Right now, you’re on quite an upward trajectory.”

Critics, which include the county’s largest social service agency, have accused the Mental Health Board in recent years of becoming a bureaucratic leviathan that spends millions in property-tax revenue on overhead that should be going directly to agencies treating the mentally disabled, as it was created by voters to do.

The Mental Health Board employs more than 30 people and almost quadrupled the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters through $3 million in federal economic stimulus bonds it now is paying back. It had employed close to 50 last year, but employees have been let go with the end of a federal grant and reassessment of other positions.

Ellis challenged Kurtz’s percentage and said that the true cost of administration is between 6 percent and 11 percent – he had cited 6 percent, without a spread, in a Jan. 30 guest column critical of the Northwest Herald’s coverage of the board’s expenses.

“I don’t feel we’ve been excessive in our spending from an administrative standpoint,” Ellis said.

A January financial report showed that the $8.7 million the Mental Health Board doled out to social service agencies last year amounted to about two-thirds of its budget, and that more than $4.4 million stayed internal.

Ellis in his guest column said the $4.4 million includes “significant” funding to coordinate support of programs. The list of programs that Ellis cited in his guest column add up to $1.4 million, or just under one-third of the $4.4 million.

Kurtz chided Ellis on the 6 percent figure he cited in his guest column when he told the committee that he and the Mental Health Board are dedicated to transparency.

“Six percent really sounds a lot better than 19 percent,” Kurtz said. “But 19 percent may in fact be the accurate number.”

Ellis told the committee he would review the information and retract his statement if it is found to be incorrect.

Former County Board member Mary Donner, who was the liaison to the Mental Health Board before losing her 2012 re-election bid, said in her interview that the administrative budget includes time that employees spend coordinating what clients need. Donner is applying for the one-year unexpired term of former member the Rev. James Swarthout.

Ellis’ assertion on administrative costs later was contradicted by the other Mental Health Board incumbent applying for reappointment. Connee Meschini, who has questioned Mental Health Board spending in the past, said too much is being spent on administration and more money needs to be allocated to client agencies.

Meschini also said that an independent audit needs to be conducted of the Mental Health Board – its annual audit typically is included in the yearly audit of county government.

“I think there can be only so much coordination. We need services,” Meschini said.

Wednesday’s questioning could be part of a new trend for how county government appoints members to more than 45 boards and commissions. One of new County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill’s legislative priorities is to strengthen the appointment and communication process.

Donner herself faced some tough questions from Kurtz, who asked whether she had “any regrets” in approving the mental health agency’s 22,000-square-foot expansion.

“None. I have no regrets at all,” Donner answered.

Committee member Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, told Kurtz after Ellis’ interview that she objected to the specificity of the questions being asked, and that the committee should focus on candidates’ willingness to serve. Kurtz and several other members disagreed – Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, said the time has come for tough questions.

“In the past 12 years [I’ve been on the board], we have taken this very lightly and asked fluffy questions,” Salgado said. “Now is the time.”

The committee will interview the remaining six candidates Friday, and could vote afterward to make its recommendations to the full County Board for approval. The number of applicants for the Mental Health Board seats, which had been 16 before four dropped out, has been cited by critics alleging that the public wants more accountability and reform.

The Mental Health Board vacancies come at a time of significant change of leadership. 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. The announcement of Lewis’ departure in August was couple with the announced the retirements of Deputy Director Bob Lesser and Clinical Director Liz Doyle.

Homeowners pay about 14.4 cents per $100 in assessed valuation to fund the Mental Health Board, or about $87 a year for the owner of a $200,000 home who takes the homestead exemption.

What it means/What’s next

The McHenry County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee is interviewing 12 candidates for four open seats on the Mental Health Board.

The committee interviewed the first six Wednesday and is scheduled to interview the remaining six Friday.

That meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

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