Committee rejects McHenry County Mental Health Board budget

WOODSTOCK – A slimmer budget developed by an increasingly cash-strapped McHenry County Mental Health Board was not austere enough for the County Board committee reviewing it.

In an unprecedented move Wednesday, the Public Health and Human Services Committee voted, 3-2, against accepting the Mental Health Board's proposed 2014 budget. The vote came after more than an hour of often testy and sometimes acrimonious debate that veered to ongoing criticisms of the agency rather than the topic at hand of its spending plan next year as part of the County Board's overall 2014 budget.

As to what the rejection means, county staff aren't completely sure. Besides the complicated statutory relationship between the County Board and the Mental Health Board, no one can remember the last time a County Board committee rejected an entity's budget during the county budget development process.

The Mental Health Board, facing shrinking revenues because of shriveling state aid and a decreasing property-tax base, proposed a budget that increases its disbursements to social service agencies while cutting its administrative costs and slashing its workforce by almost half. Funding for its 25 client agencies will increase from $8.4 million to $8.7 million, while its workforce will shrink from 33 to 19 full-time equivalents.

"We've submitted a budget to you that significantly lowers administrative expenses," interim Executive Director Todd Schroll told the committee.

But the bloc of committee members who have sharply criticized the Mental Health Board's size and scope disagreed. Voting "no" were committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake; Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake; and John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake.

One point opponents noted was the money saved by spinning off several of the Mental Health Board's coordination services to affiliated agencies working out of its building. Walkup and Hammerand alleged that some of the cutbacks were merely "moving people across the hall."

"It looks like you're playing a shell game with money and financing," Kurtz told Schroll, who disputed the accusations.

Voting "yes" for the budget were Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, and Mary McCann, R-Woodstock. Yensen, the County Board's liaison to the Mental Health Board, has herself been a spending critic and has worked to lower its expenses. Members Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, and Anna May Miller, R-Cary, attended but had to leave for other commitments before the vote, which took place three hours into the committee's meeting.

The Mental Health Board has faced growing criticism over the years that it has become far too big and spends too much on administration and overhead – including more than $3 million to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters – that should instead be going directly to agencies serving the mentally disabled.

But its 2014 proposed budget was hashed out by a radically changed, reform-oriented Mental Health Board that has undergone significant change. Five of the nine seats on the board have changed hands this year, much of it due to the Public Health and Human Services Committee, which is poised next month to interview candidates for a sixth vacancy.

County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, who attended the latter part of the debate, told the committee that the change the reform bloc seeks can move only so fast.

"It sounds to me like you're trying to fix something in one budget year," said Hill, R-Woodstock.

McCann, who more than once traded barbs with Kurtz and Walkup during the hearing, could not hide her displeasure with the direction the debate took.

"[The Mental Health Board has] done exactly what a small group of County Board members has been pushing for," McCann said after the vote. "This whole discussion was based on people's emotional responses to the past, not going forward with a budget for the future,"

The question now becomes what the committee's rejection means.

The Mental Health Board, whose members are appointed by the County Board, has a degree of fiscal autonomy under state law. It collects a property-tax levy that was approved by voter referendum, and it has control over how it spends the local, state and federal funds it receives. But the County Board must sign off on the total appropriation it receives, according to a McHenry County State's Attorney's Office opinion last year.

County Administrator Peter Austin said he will ask the State's Attorney's Office for clarification as to what would happen if the County Board did not end up approving the appropriation. A parliamentary question also arises as to whether the Mental Health Board budget can move out of the committee with the "no" vote – the full County Board would almost certainly override the rejection when it approves the total 2014 budget.

With two months left to go before the County Board is set to approve next year's budget, Austin said he is confident that some kind of agreement can be reached to avert any kind of impasse. But that did not stop Hill from chiding the committee majority for its vote.

"I need you to think about holding up the whole process for three voices, and that concerns me," Hill said.

The Mental Health Board budget was the fourth and last one reviewed Wednesday by the Public Health and Human Services Committee, which approved the budgets of the Regional Office of Education, Valley Hi Nursing Home and the Department of Health.

Miller said Wednesday afternoon that she would have voted in favor of the Mental Health Board's budget had she not had to leave. Salgado could not be reached for comment.

The Mental Health Board is requesting $11.475 million in property-tax revenue next year, down from about $11.9 million this year and $12.7 million collected in 2012. Because it levies the maximum tax rate mental health boards are allowed under state law – 15 cents per $100 in assessed valuation – it has no wiggle room to raise its rate to compensate for the decline in the county's assessed value.

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