Mental Health Board receptive to outside audit

The McHenry County Mental Health Board said it will actively discuss conducting an annual audit in response to ongoing questions regarding its revenue and spending.

Board members agreed Tuesday evening to create a Finance Committee that will take up discussion of whether the taxpayer-funded agency should pursue an outside audit. The decision came at a meeting in which three new members were seated on the nine-member board, and the first meeting after its president was ousted by the McHenry County Board.

"This will improve transparency about how we conduct ourselves as a Mental Health Board to have a group of committee members meeting about financials," said Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, who holds the County Board's voting seat on the Mental Health Board.

Critics have alleged in recent years that the Mental Health Board has become a bureaucracy that spends too much money on administration and overhead that instead should be disbursed to more than two dozen agencies working with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, which the board was created by voters to do. About one-third of the $13.15 million the board received last year stayed internal – former board President Lee Ellis first put the actual amount spent on administration at 6 percent, but said in February the amount could be between 6 percent and 11 percent. Critics, such as County Board member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, peg the number at 19 percent.

The Mental Health Board now does more than act as a pass-through agency for funding. It employs more than 30 people and is paying off $3 million in economic stimulus bonds it used to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters.

Board officials have maintained that their finances and spending are open and transparent, and have vehemently fought allegations to the contrary, a number of which come from several of the service agencies dependent on Mental Health Board funding.

Kurtz is chairwoman of the County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee that spearheaded putting three new members on the board. She said Wednesday that she is hopeful that the Mental Health Board will proceed with annual audits to "make sure the mission is being met."

"I think they are going to be looking at things with a whole new set of eyes," Kurtz said.

The County Board earlier this year received 16 applications for three expired four-year terms and a one-year unexpired term on the Mental Health Board. The public health committee interviewed 12 for the unpaid positions, including Ellis, but decided to deny him reappointment and instead recommend newcomers Carrie Smith, Robert Routzahn and Heather Murgatroyd. The committee recommended giving incumbent Connee Meschini the one-year unexpired term left by the Rev. James Swarthout, who took a job with an agency that receives Mental Health Board funding.

After a two-week delay because of concerns that the committee's vote was not in full compliance with new Illinois Open Meetings Act requirements, the County Board voted March 5 to formally approve the appointments. The County Board now is accepting applications through April 11 to fill another vacancy left by former member Sam Tenuto, who stepped down to take a job with mental health provider Pioneer Center for Human Services, a client agency and critic of Mental Health Board spending.

County Board member Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, said she was very pleased that the Mental Health Board was willing to discuss an audit. Schuster, one of the County Board's fiscal hawks, broached the idea after the March 5 appointment vote after alleging that the numbers being thrown out by the Mental Health Board, especially in the weeks leading up to Ellis' ouster, had not been vetted.

"I was blown away by the receptiveness to the audit question, and that they are moving it to their new finance committee and pursuing the possibility of doing audits. They were very wide open and very responsive. I was very excited by the way they handled things last night," Schuster said.

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.

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