Report backs Mental Health Board’s critics in McHenry County

Admin costs rise to 17 percent

The McHenry County Mental Health Board’s critics were much closer to the mark than its leaders as to how much the agency spends on administration, according to its end-of-year report.

The board’s 2012 annual report released Tuesday puts the amount the board spent last fiscal year on administrative expenses at 17 percent. That’s almost three times the 6 percent that the board and its former president have quoted as criticism of its size and spending has mounted.

The main reason for the almost threefold difference is that the Mental Health Board categorized more expenses as administrative in its 2012 annual report than it did in the 2011 report from which the 6 percent figure emerged.

Of the $14.9 million the Mental Health Board spent in 2012, it spent just under $2.5 million on administrative expenses. It includes salaries and benefits paid out to administrative employees, day-to-day operations, finishing the significant expansion of its Crystal Lake headquarters and starting to pay back the $3.5 million it borrowed to do so, according to the report and records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The 2011 report, on the other hand, factored in only administrative salaries and general operating expenses, and not the costs associated with the expansion and other debt service.

County Board member Donna Kurtz, who chairs the committee that since January has put three new faces on the Mental Health Board and ousted the former president, said the report vindicates critics.

“It’s a little bit like a kid getting their hand caught in the cookie jar,” said Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake. “The public wants to hear that they’re taking only 6 percent, but when the numbers add up, it turns out they are charging an exorbitant amount for non-treatment-related functions.”

The Northwest Herald on Thursday asked the Mental Health Board for comment, but board officials did not respond.

Critics have accused the Mental Health Board in recent years of becoming a bureaucracy that spends millions in property-tax revenue that should be going directly to agencies treating the mentally ill and disabled, as it was created by voter referendum to do.

Seventy percent of the board’s 2012 spending, or just under $10.5 million, went directly to 34 agencies working with people with mental illness and disabilities. The board spent an additional 13 percent internally, or just under $2 million, mostly grant money from state agencies, on coordinating those services.

As for other internal costs last year, the board spent more than $1 million on administrative salaries and benefits, up 17 percent from 2011, and $636,803 on general administrative costs. The salary total does not count $800,000 paid to employees who work under the grant programs, according to pay data obtained under FOIA.

An additional $801,376 went toward facility expenses, which included finishing the addition of 22,000 square feet to its headquarters and renovating the original 8,000 square feet, and making payments toward the economic stimulus bonds it issued.

As criticism mounted last year, Mental Health Board officials cited the 6 percent figure in fact sheets and in a Jan. 30 guest column by former President Lee Ellis that was critical of the newspaper’s coverage.

However, the 6 percent figure did not factor in more than $500,000 in other administrative expenses detailed in the 2011 report. Furthermore, the Mental Health Board included the $3.5 million it borrowed in its total expenses from which the percentage was calculated, thus lowering it.

Including the other administrative expenses – and not counting the $3.5 million in the overall expenses – puts the 2011 administrative cost at 11 percent. Ellis had revised the board’s estimate to “between 6 and 11 percent” when Kurtz and the County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee grilled him at a Feb. 13 hearing in his unsuccessful bid for reappointment.

Kurtz had estimated administrative costs at 19 percent, citing the total expenses listed under administrative line items in an preliminary end-of-year expense sheet. In a memo sent later that day to County Board members and obtained under FOIA, interim Mental Health Board Executive Director Todd Schroll pegged 2011’s administrative costs at 12.9 percent.

Scrutiny of the Mental Health Board’s spending began to accelerate last year. It spent $1.8 million in a failed effort to save an ailing mental health agency from closing, and blew its legal budget by more that 500 percent, in part because it was sued by one of the agencies it funds. A federal judge last month dismissed the case.

Former board Executive Director Sandy Lewis quit last year to take another job, shortly after receiving her doctorate, for which taxpayers paid at least $30,000 in tuition and fees, according to records. The search for her replacement is ongoing.

Pioneer Center for Human Services, the county’s largest social service provider, has long maintained that more of the board’s revenues should go directly to agencies. However, President and CEO Patrick Maynard said he is optimistic with meaningful reforms that he said are starting.

“I think what I’d like to focus on is the clear picture of change,” Maynard said. “They’re taking a different approach toward transparency, accountability – those are all the things I talked with the county that I wanted to see, and I’m happy to see that it’s starting to occur.”

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