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Proposed sales tax would fund mental health 'safety net' for Winnebago County

Rockford Register Star - 12/14/2019

Dec. 14--ROCKFORD -- Public health advocates began talking in 2011 about how to fill the gaps in mental health services available in Winnebago County. Voters will have the final word if County Board members place a question on the March 17, 2020, ballot asking for a sales tax increase to pay for mental health services.

The Winnebago County Board will decide Thursday whether to place the question on the primary ballot. Here's what you need to know about the proposed mental health sales tax:

Question: How much is the proposed sales tax?

Answer: Half a cent on every dollar spent.

Illinois imposes a statewide 6.25% sales tax. An additional 1 percentage point sales tax designated for public safety purposes is collected by Winnebago County. The city of Rockford charges an additional 1 percentage point tax to pay for infrastructure needs, as do other municipalities in Winnebago County.

The countywide sales tax rate would increase to 8.75% -- or 9.75% in Rockford and other municipalities with the infrastructure tax-- if a mental health sales tax were approved by voters.

Q: If the referendum is approved by voters, how much money would be generated and how would it be spent?

A: Supporters estimate the tax would generate $12 million to $14 million a year. The money would be spent to address six broad mental needs (annual amounts are estimates):

--Crisis response ($3 million): Services for adults and children with serious mental illnesses who are experiencing psychiatric crises.

--Mental health treatment ($4 million): A continuum of care support system, from the most intensive mental health services (inpatient care) to the least intensive community-based services (outpatient counseling, supportive housing, peer support). For example, funding would support inpatient and residential psychiatric services for children under 12, a service not currently offered in Winnebago County.

--Family and community support ($2 million): This would include respite care for families, residential services for children and adults, medication management and monitoring, and supportive employment and schooling services to stabilize children and adults with mental illness.

--Client identification and outreach ($1.5 million): These services would support a coordinated entry approach and proactive outreach program to help Winnebago County residents access systems of care and navigate financial issues and insurance coverage.

--Case management ($1 million): Highly trained, professional support for people with the most serious disorders so that they can manage their chronic illnesses and disorders and avoid frequent emergency treatment and cycling through the social services system.

--Administration ($500,000): Some of the tax revenue would support a board of directors (subject to the Illinois Open Meetings Act) and one to two staff members who would help coordinate funding in a transparent, public manner. The board and staff would serve as a resource, advocate and community liaison and would be responsible for developing the county's mental health service system, launching the system and monitoring it.

Q: Who would oversee the tax and decide how the money is spent and what measures would be in place to ensure that the money is spent for its intended purpose?

A: The Winnebago County Board chairman would appoint seven people to a mental health board with the advice and consent of the County Board. The mental health board, along with a staff of one or two people, would develop and implement a mental/behavioral health service system for Winnebago County. This entity would then solicit and award grants to service providers to address the mental/behavioral health needs of the community. The county Health Department would serve as the mental health board's fiscal agent for the purpose of accepting donations of property and funds.

Q: Why are public health advocates in Winnebago County talking about the need for a mental health sales tax now?

A: The conversation about how to better address Winnebago County's mental health needs isn't new. It picked up in 2011 when former Winnebago County Board chairman Scott Christiansen appointed members of a mental health advisory committee to assess mental health services in the county, monitor changes in available mental health services and make recommendations for additional mental health services if deemed necessary.

The advisory committee identified several serious mental health service gaps in Winnebago County. The committee also surveyed more than 2,000 residents and found that more than 80% of respondents believe that mental illness continues to be stigmatized. Moreover, age-adjusted rates of suicide continued at higher rates in Winnebago County (13.7) than the state of Illinois (10.5) and Winnebago County residents have consistently reported a greater than average number of poor mental health days (3.5) compared with Illinois (3.3) residents.

Members of the advisory committee sought a change in state law last year to allow Illinois counties to raise the countywide sales tax by referendum to fund mental health service needs. The law, sponsored last year by state Sens. Steven Stadelman, D-Rockford, and Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, was approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker.

Q: Who is asking the County Board to place this referendum on the March 17, 2020, primary ballot?

A: The Behaviorial Health Leadership Team of the Rockford Regional Health Council. The council is a Rockford nonprofit agency established in 1982 to promote better health for residents of north central Illinois. The Behavioral Health Leadership Team grew out of the work done by the mental health advisory committee and its members include Becky Cook Kendall, director of the Health Council; Paul Logli, director of United Way of Rock River Valley; Dick Kunnert, retired superintendent of the former Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford; Mary Ann Abate, vice president of public policy at Rosecrance Health Network; and Sandra Martell, director of the Winnebago County Health Department.

Q: Why do supporters say this tax is needed?

A: "We know there are residents and owners of businesses who don't want to see any additional taxes within the county and we understand that. This is really a question of paying now or paying latter. Give us the opportunity to keep people healthy so that they don't fall into the emergency room or the jail or other places that are related to casualty where you'll have much higher costs for society." -- Dick Kunnert

Isaac Guerrero: 815-987-1361; iguerrero@rrstar.com; @isaac_rrs

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