Lyons: Pining for slow news on the Mental Health Board

Although it’s often important news, I sigh each time another story breaks about disruptions on the McHenry County Mental Health Board.

For many years, the Mental Health Board was rarely in the news. Certainly not on the front page. Perhaps we weren’t paying enough attention or perhaps times were more peaceful. More likely, there were plenty of other things distracting our attention.

There are truths about the Mental Health Board that are difficult to argue:

• It is an asset to McHenry County in the sense that local tax dollars are earmarked for local people so we don’t have to depend on this disaster of a state government for everything.

• Some administrative functions of the Mental Health Board have exceeded their need. What often happens to taxing bodies over the years is they tend to swell into bureaucracies whose primary purpose inadvertently becomes justifying their own jobs instead of the purpose for which they were originally intended.

• There are valuable agencies that depend on Mental Health Board funding to provide vital services to those with mental illness, developmental disabilities and individuals who struggle with substance abuse.

• Helping these people is not political. In fact, it should be less political than sidewalk repair and highway maintenance. Whoever operates with political motives in funding social service agencies or providing treatment should get as far away from these matters as humanly possible.

That goes for treatment providers, McHenry County Board members, Mental Health Board appointees and anyone else involved in what should be a simple process of distributing taxpayer dollars to agencies that can best use them to help members of this community.

Obviously, this message has been lost somewhere to the point that officials from a struggling substance abuse treatment agency were either incredibly naive or felt pressure to jeopardize their tax-exempt status by propping up local politicians.

Then you had the bizarre reaction from McHenry County Board members Mike Walkup and Donna Kurtz, who chastised another County Board member, Paula Yensen, for daring to bring the subject of the politicking up publicly.

While Walkup, Kurtz, Yensen and other County Board and Mental Health Board members have good overall intentions in reforming the Mental Health Board, the undercurrent of politics flowing through funding matters should be exposed, not hidden. It illustrates the problem.

Like air pollution and traffic jams, politics usually forms at the intersection of money and power. But you try to eliminate it instead of pretending like it doesn’t exist.

There has been some reduction in Mental Health Board staff – from 33 to 19 full-time employees, which is a good start. Everyone seems to agree the highest percentage possible of distributed funds – around $8.4 million this year – should go directly to social service agencies.

It would be even better if eventually the Mental Health Board only needed a handful of people to distribute funds. The United Way of Greater McHenry County, for example, is able to distribute its donated money to area nonprofits through allocation panels of volunteers. It seems to work.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the day when the business of funding agencies whose primary purpose is to help people with real needs hums along in quiet manner that would grab few headlines.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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