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Leave the Geneva Mental Health Board Alone!

Is this really on our top 10 priorities list?

Really?

With our state boasting the third-highest foreclosure rate, a downtown on the brink of extinction, property taxes rising despite home values declining, a sometimes bitter fight over the fate of an iconic State Street building, the continuing fallout from a $24,000 city employee theft, and the installation of a new half-million-dollar city software system (with a $100,000 a year maintenance contract, no less), the only thing Genevans are haranguing the mayor about is the Mental Health Board?

And, apparently, these folks are getting very specific about this non-issue. Maybe I have more readers than I thought!

Yes! During last Monday’s (April 30) policy-only City Council meeting, the mayor told the aldermen that we regular folks had questioned whether Geneva benefits from the social service agencies that receive those tax-dollar-driven stipends. He said he had heard community comments that the organizations’ services overlapped, the grants were too small to do real good, and some taxpayers didn’t think that kind of thing should fall under the auspices of municipal government.

But if you believe any of that, then I have a slightly used Route 38 bridge I’d be willing to part with for just 10 bucks.

And ain’t it fascinating how every time this subject rears its ugly head, it comes in the form of former alderman and staunch Burns ally Jim Radecki? C’mon, if you’re going to try to pull the wool over my eyes, please don’t insult my intelligence in the process.

Radecki dutifully told the council that the GMHB small-grant methodology was flawed, that a county or state board could do a better job, and he asked why we were funding nonprofit groups that already have state contracts in the first place.

So, let me get this straight! Illinois, the state that’s already $13 billion in the hole and $9 billion behind on payments, will somehow manage to manage this charitable endeavor more efficiently than a locally appointed board?

Mr. Radecki probably still believes in the Tooth Fairy, too!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a cash-strapped social service agency return a $5 check because it’s just not worth their time.

For review purposes, in 2011, the GMHB passed out $139,000 of our tax dollars to 14 agencies that serve Genevans, including Suicide Prevention Services, TriCity Family Services, Casa Kane County, Lazarus House and the Renz Addiction Center. They also set aside another 14 grand for a group home which seems to be an underlying bone of contention between city staff and the board.

As far as I’m concerned, they could triple the GMHB budget because, as any reasonable businessman implicitly knows, every dollar sent to a social service agency saves us nine long-run dollars. Not only is it good karma, but it’s a sound investments to keep our less-fortunate neighbors from falling through the cracks.

Thankfully, though the fate of the board wasn’t up for a vote, the aldermen at that meeting impressed me with their foresight. Perhaps a few of them actually do have some imagination.

“I wouldn’t want to send it (the money) to the county, and I sure wouldn’t want to send it to the state,” 3rd Ward Alderman Dawn Vogelsberg cogently countered.

First Ward Alderman Sam Hill must be reading my columns because, leaving nothing to the imagination, he said if that cash were sent to the state “too great a percentage would go to the crooks that have dominated our state politics over the last 30 to 40 years!”

Take that, Mike Madigan!

“If we prevent one suicide this year, it’s worth all the money we can give,” noted 5th Ward Alderman and sitting GMHB member Ralph Dantino. In these dire economic times, I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, I would encourage all of you to dig as deep as you can to support these amazing causes who work miracles on our behalf.

But now, it’s my turn!

I don’t believe for a single second that a single citizen complained about our tax dollars going to non-Genevans because, until this news story broke, no Genevan beyond that board could name one agency that received funds if his or her life depended on it.

Even if they had complained, it’s not true.

Grant applicants are required to document the number of Geneva citizens they serve before they get a solitary cent. AID Chairman Chuck Miles told the council that 68 Geneva residents are currently on their waiting list, a dozen of whom are ineligible for state support.

In their own words, AID strives to, “empower individuals with disabilities, mental illness and special needs to achieve independence and community inclusion.” If those people aren’t the “least of our brothers and sisters,” then I don’t know who is.

Some folks oughtta really be embarrassed for even bringing this up.

With all the first-paragraph challenges Geneva is facing, why are we wasting our time on this? The city manager’s salary and benefits alone come out to significantly more that the sum total of those well-earned grants. But as you all know, when this administration gets an idea, it’s Katie bar the door.

You know what? I think I’ll go write a check to Lazarus House, and then I’ll try to persuade Alderman Rich Marks to run for mayor. And if he won’t do it …

Jim MacRunnels May 09, 2012 at 10:33 AM
Well done Jeff. It is time all government cuts waste at the upper levels (God knows there is plenty) and do the job that government should, fund programs for those who REALLY need the help.
Jeff Ward May 09, 2012 at 11:59 AM
Amen!
Colin C. May 09, 2012 at 12:23 PM
The whole point of living in a community is that it gives us the mechanism with which we can help each other in times of need. So, my tax dollars go to providing police and fire protection that I hope that I never need personally. They go to streets that i use every day. And they go to help my friends, neighbors, and sometimes my family when we hit a rough spot and need the help. I can't think of a better way to use my money and would vote "YES" in a heartbeat to double the amount. And through my church and personally I contribute a little more every year anyway. Shame on anyone who would cut these funds because "we just can't afford it". That would be a selfish, cheap, and small minded act.
Noel G. Rooks May 09, 2012 at 12:39 PM
You're kidding me. Leaving this to the state? What? Of all the legit things we need to be worried about, this is what comes up?
Rick Nagel (Editor) May 09, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Just for the record, I think the policy discussion at that April 30 meeting was healthy and an example of good government. In fact, it's one of things the city of Geneva (and, yes, Mayor Burns) does well—put an issue on the table, let folks talk about it in open session, and let officials come to some general policy consensus. As someone present at the meeting, I did not feel there was any kind of push from the dais for one conclusion or another. And, as a fiscal conservative (see my Patch bio), I can see both sides of this issue. Philosophically, I'm not keen on government collecting taxes and the determining where charity dollars should go. I think that's better suited to the community chest or personal choice. That said, these agencies are all deserving and benefit Genevans, and it would be very hard for them if these dollars were to go away. I also agree with Jeff and Colin that we should dig into our pockets and give more to local social service agencies. Kudos for the discussion.
Jeff Ward May 09, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Rick, I don't disagree. I just think that time could've been better spent regarding the real issues that face Geneva. Jeff
Terry Flanagan May 09, 2012 at 02:30 PM
One of the seldom discussed issues with these grants is that we have no way of knowing how effective they are. We have no accounting of how dollars are spent. We hear the potentially biased testimony of the people associated with each agency of how well the agency is doing and it's very confusing to the public. So many agencies seem to be performing the same or overlapping services. Which agencies are most effective? Which agencies maximize funding to provide the best services? How much of the funding goes to overhead and how much goes to caring for the people the agency serves? Some states (not Illinois) have done some analysis to determine which agencies consistently provide the best outcomes and shifted funding to those agencies. Some have switched to a voucher system and allowed the people in need of social services to decide which services to use. Good stewardship of public funds requires that we look at all spending, make sure we have accountability for those funds, and ensure that we are spending tax dollars wisely. We just can't assume that giving money to every social service that asks for it is a good thing or money well spent even if it feels like the right thing to do.
Jeff Ward May 09, 2012 at 02:55 PM
But Terry, Do you really believe anyone approached the mayor and was this specific on this subject? And from my long experience working for social service agencies, it sound like this board is doing awfully well with due diligence. Jeff
Terry Flanagan May 09, 2012 at 04:34 PM
Jeff, I'm not exactly the mayor's confidante, so I can only take him at his word. I can't think of any criticism I've personally heard publicly or privately of the Mental Health Board and mental health spending other than Radecki's comments. However, it took two attempts before the referendum for creation of the board and the mental health tax passed in 1989. The vote was not unanimous, so some people may still have some reservations about the process. It doesn't hurt to have these discussions because we need to periodically examine how we spend our tax dollars and to remind ourselves of what we are trying to accomplish. In this case, the voters decided that it was in the public interest to fund mental health services. I believe the tax levy rate was set by the referendum and the city pledged not to raise it at the time of the referendum. Conceivably, the city council could raise or lower the rate, but has not done so. There's not much point in debating the merits of a mental health tax, but I think it's a good idea to review how we allocate funds and what programs are most successful and perhaps deserving of a greater share of the funds.
Jeff Ward May 09, 2012 at 04:41 PM
Terry, I don't disagree with anything you said. I just think in the long line of issues the city council should be discussing, this one's number 372. Jeff
Ken S May 09, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Rick, thanks for the plug of the Geneva Community Chest. The donations we collect go to 21 local not for profits that assist Geneva residents in need and the entire board of directors are volunteers http://www.genevacommunitychest.org/?page_id=9
Rod Nelson May 10, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Those who have framed the debate as a question over the role of municipal government have the right focus. If the money saves one lfe it is worth it. But what if the same money administered differently could save two? Is this not a question worth asking?
Jeff Ward May 10, 2012 at 11:32 AM
Rod, As usual, you are correct...well...mostly correct. The question wasn't as much could someone else do it better as it was should we be doing it at all. Though I now understand Jim Radecki had some real concerns, there's friction between the GMHB and the city which I believe is at the heart of all this. On those rare 5th Mondays, instead of talking about $159,000, why not tackle challenges like how to foster downtown growth? The current economic development needs much more direction. Let's talk about bringing employee benefits and pensions back within reality and possibly privatizing elements if necessary. Let's discuss reforming an ethics committee that contributed to the mayor's county chair campaign. Let's ask the question as to why a $500,000 computer system with a $100,000 service contract doesn't mean we can phase some city positions out. We haven't heard a single word as to specifically how they will prevent future employee theft. The GMHB is something you tackle when you have nothing else to discuss. Jeff
Jay Moffat May 11, 2012 at 01:01 PM
If the concern is about money being handed out that Geneva lacks control over, perhaps the answer lies in buying and outfitting another group home in Geneva. Home values are down so purchasing power should get us a better value. Trade people need work so a small amount of local jobs would be created to retrofit the home. Granted this home is managed by AID but with a number of families in Geneva needing this kind of assistance perhaps this can address any issues about giving our tax dollars to "outsiders". If the City fathers embrace this taxing body, and this taxing body is receiving pressure about its charitable work, keeping all the dollars in Geneva for a few years could only help the families of Geneva that have challenged adult children by housing them within our community. Granted that would decrease the Mental Health Board's ability to help other deserving social service agencies but given the current housing value situation this could be a great opportunity for long term needs within Geneva.

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