The Advantage Group closes its doors

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 10:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 11:45 p.m. CDT

A young adult substance abuse treatment agency plagued by recent controversy closed Thursday after 27 years.

The Advantage Group, based in Crystal Lake, shut down for lack of funding. The group lost funding from the McHenry County Mental Health Board last year after an audit revealed multiple fiscal irregularities, and another controversy scrapped a last-ditch effort to secure a $49,000 payment to stay afloat.

The group unsuccessfully took the Mental Health Board to court, and the audit prompted an ongoing state investigation into TAG’s finances. Executive Director Pat Owens pinned blame for the closing squarely on the board, which disburses property-tax revenue to agencies working with the mentally ill and disabled.

“TAG has provided free services to this community, served thousands in the past couple of years, and the Mental Health Board essentially starved us,” Owens said.

Owens stressed that every one of the 35 clients that were receiving direct help have been paired with other agencies to continue their counseling for drug- and alcohol-related problems. The Advantage Group serves between 1,200 and 1,500 people a year.

The Mental Health Board, most of whom are new members after a significant County Board shakeup, was poised last month to give TAG the $49,000 payment. But Owens abruptly withdrew the request the morning of the scheduled vote. It was later revealed that TAG was asked to do so because of allegations the group had violated its tax-exempt status by endorsing political candidates.

The agency had used its Facebook page to endorse local Republican political candidates, and hosted a luncheon for sheriff’s candidate Bill Prim. Owens called the actions an innocent mistake – tax law forbids 501(c)3 groups from campaigning for or against candidates.

Paula Yensen holds the McHenry County Board’s voting seat on the Mental Health Board and was the one who brought the potential violation to the attention of board President Robert Routzahn. She said Thursday that she was “deeply saddened” by TAG’s closing.

“I think they provide an invaluable service to the people of McHenry County,” said Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills. “My hope is that there will be a seamless transition of clients from TAG to the other agencies that provide like services.”

In a statement, Mental Health Board Interim Executive Director Todd Schroll expressed sorrow over TAG’s closure and defended the audit as a routine practice necessary to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent prudently.

“The board understands that TAG has been working to reconcile these issues, but like many other agencies, it has limited financial resources. And so, the MHB understands TAG’s decision to close,” Schroll said.

The tentative decision to grant TAG the payment despite the unresolved audit prompted one of the last remaining Mental Health Board veterans to resign. An unsolicited legal opinion from the board’s longtime attorney advising against the idea prompted members to move to fire him, but he resigned first. The board already had been seeking new counsel because of dissatisfaction with the attorneys’ fees.

The closure of TAG comes slightly more than a year after the closing of Family Service and Community Mental Health Center, which also shut down because of financial issues. The $1.8 million the Mental Health Board spent to unsuccessfully save the agency and its client services was one of the catalysts for the ongoing shakeup of its membership.

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