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Illinois lawmakers validate referendums creating mental health funding for 5 suburban townships and Will County

Chicago Tribune - 11/9/2023

Mental health funding that voters approved last year would be saved from a do-over after Illinois lawmakers voted to validate multiple referendums despite concerns that ballots were improperly written.

The measure would uphold referendums held by five suburban townships and Will County that created mental health boards to levy taxes for mental health programs.

“We’ve seen the value residents place on mental health care — they already approved the tax increases that will fund the creation of these community mental health boards,” said sponsoring state Sen. Ann Gillespie, a Democrat from Arlington Heights. “By validating these boards, municipalities can levy the taxes to allow the boards to function as intended.”

The bill approved Wednesday, if signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, would allow mental health funding in Addison, Lisle, Naperville, Schaumburg and Wheeling townships, as well as Will County.

The programs are expected to generate roughly $1 million to $2 million per year in each township, and around $10 million annually in Will County, despite Republican concerns that the taxes were too high.

As the Tribune first reported in August, critics had said the referendums were invalid because they did not include language disclosing the amount the taxes would cost individual homeowners.

Opponents argued that county, state and federal governments already fund mental health, and township should not be creating a new bureaucracy. Conservative business owner Richard Uihlein donated $25,000 to oppose the measures.

In response to the concerns, the Wheeling Township board had approved holding a new referendum on the question in March 2024, but the state legislation would prohibit any repeat ballot questions on the subject next year in order to prevent confusion.

The faulty referendum questions were based on citizen petitions to put the questions on the ballot that were based on the state Community Mental Health Act, but should have addressed requirements in other parts of the complicated Illinois tax code.

The validation would allow the local governments to approve the tax levies before the end of the year in order to collect the revenue next year.

Only Vernon Township, which approved the measure after the township board attorney approved the language, apparently was properly worded.

The issue arose in 2021 when a Kane County judge ruled that Dundee Township had to meet the referendum requirements to fund its mental health boards. Lawmakers previously approved temporary fixes for that problem.

Wheeling Township attorney Kenneth Florey had raised concerns about facing costly challenges to the validity of the referendums, and questioned whether legislation would be legally sufficient to fix the problem.

“Citizens trying to petition to get this on the ballot shouldn’t need legal degrees to figure this out,” state Rep. Daniel Didech, a Democrat from Buffalo Grove, said. “We’ve made this way too complicated. That’s why it’s appropriate to validate these. These laws are written in a confusing way. This has happened so many times we have to clean up these statutes.”

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