It would be easy for everyone to look at the half-empty McHenry County Mental Health Board building and say, “I told you so.”
In 2009, the Mental Health Board made a pitch for the 22,000-square-foot expansion, which actually was a new building separate from its original 8,000-square-foot headquarters. The board cited dwindling space and future growth as the reasons the new building was needed.
Opponents, including a number of client agencies the Mental Health Board funded, argued the board was overstepping its bounds and had far exceeded its primary mission to distribute tax money to agencies working with clients with mental illness and developmental disabilities. We opposed the project on the grounds that the Great Recession was not a good time to build new government buildings.
The County Board green-lighted the project in 2010. The project was funded with $4 million in federal bonding authority granted to the McHenry County Board as a means to stimulate the economy and get people back to work in the midst of the Great Recession.
Shrinking revenues and a new vision that has led to shrinking staff size have left the building half-empty.
Finger-pointing, however, is not the right way to react to the situation. Seven of the Mental Health Board’s nine members have taken office in the past two years and had nothing to do with the decision. A new board and interim Executive Director Lyn Orphal are seeking ways to help defray the cost of and fill space in the building.
Because it’s a public building financed through a unique federal bond program, there are limits on what can be done.
The board can lease space to fellow government agencies, but not private interests. The hurdles that would be involved in selling the building likely would negate any cost savings in doing so, at least for a number of years. It can charge occupancy fees to the four mental health agencies that have space in the original 8,000-square-foot building. It will start doing so next fiscal year.
We wish the Mental Health Board luck in its quest to find ways to defray the cost of a building that should not have been built. This board didn’t create the mess, but it has to fix it.