Despite state law to address controversy, Wheeling Township blocks taxes for new mental health program approved in referendum

More than a year ago, voters in Wheeling Township approved a new property tax to fund mental health services. But due to a legal dispute with political overtones, advocates likely will have to go through another referendum and wait a couple more years before they could get funding.

Township officials are refusing to impose taxes for the program, saying it didn’t meet legal requirements, despite a law passed to address the dispute.

The controversy continues even while other suburban governments, from Schaumburg to Naperville townships and Will County, are implementing new voter-approved tax funding for mental health programs.

“You can’t just wave a magic wand and say substantive errors are now waived,” Wheeling Township attorney Ken Florey said in arguing for the delay.

“It’s just frustrating,” mental health advocate Lorri Grainawi said. “The effect is that people with mental health issues, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse are not getting the funding they need.”

To honor the will of the voters, she said, the township should proceed with the new tax, or use money from its reserves to fund increased mental health services until the issue is resolved.

The issue arose in November 2022, when voters in Will County and Addison, Naperville, Lisle, Winfield, Schaumburg, and Wheeling townships voted to create mental health boards and property tax levies to fund mental health services.

The referendums stated the tax rate to be imposed, but did not include language required by the state tax cap law, including the total amount to be raised and the tax impact on a typical property.

To remedy the issue, state lawmakers voted last fall to validate the results of those referendums, and to prohibit the same townships from holding new referendums in 2024 on the same issue.

That settled the matter for Will County and all the townships except Wheeling. Its attorney, Florey, who provides legal counsel to many other municipalities as well, warned that even the new state law would not cure a faulty referendum.

Property taxpayers could file an objection to the tax, which could take years to resolve in court. If they won, they would get their taxes refunded plus up to 5% interest. Taxing bodies would have already spent years of taxes that they would have to recoup, putting them in a risky financial position, Florey said.

“Citizens have a right to know that information on the ballot before it was voted on,” Florey said. “You can’t go backward and say you don’t need that.”

Instead, the Wheeling Township board plans to hold a new referendum in 2025. If passed, the taxes likely wouldn’t be collected until at least 2026. Township officials appreciate the need for mental health care, Florey said, and have provided substantial funding for it for years.

A similar controversy arose previously in Kane County, where voters in Elgin and Dundee townships approved taxes for mental health programs in 2020. Citing the same requirements, Kane County Clerk John Cunningham refused to enact the tax levies on the advice of the state’s attorney, a position that was upheld in court.

Just as it did recently with the newer elections, the General Assembly also passed a law in 2021 to validate the township referendums, but kept the requirement for future votes to include the property tax information. Kane County then enacted tax levies for those township programs, though they were delayed a year by the litigation.

More generally, the controversy reflects a split between Democrats pushing for expanded mental health services, and Republicans who oppose creating new programs and taxes for services they say are already provided by townships and counties.

Asked to address the dispute, Will County State’s Attorney Civil Division Chief Mary Tatroe gave a legal opinion to the County Board that its referendum from November 2022 was legitimate, but acknowledged uncertainty over interpreting the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law, or PTELL.

“There is good reason for the confusion,” Tatroe wrote. “The taxing bodies and the courts have wrestled with the interpretation for years.”

At first blush, Tatroe wrote, the law “seems” to mandate stating the total revenue to be generated, and the additional tax on a $100,000 property. However, she added, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in a previous case that those requirements were not mandatory. Therefore, she said, the referendum was in “substantial compliance” with the law.

Acting on that opinion, the Will County board voted in October to approve a $10 million tax levy for mental health services.

The increase to the property tax on a home valued at $250,000 is about $36, county officials said. The vote was split, with Republicans opposing increased taxes, and Democrats supporting the measure to help veterans, homeless and others.

About 1 in 5 adults, or an estimated 100,000 people in Will County have a mental health condition, said Teena Mackey, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Will and Grundy counties. Many are on waiting lists, and about half don’t get the help they need for conditions such as anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress, or autism.

In Naperville, the township passed an $800,000 levy, far less than the maximum $8 million authorized with approval from 60% of the voters. Officials said they want to be careful to match funding to needs and the ability to provide services.

Mental health boards generally conduct an assessment of needs in each community, then award grants to not-for-profits and other agencies already providing services. Statewide, the Association of Community Mental Health Authorities lists 43 member organizations.

Vernon Hills Township avoided the controversy by passing a referendum proposal that included the required language. It enacted its $1.6 million levy, which means a home with an assessed value of $100,000 would be taxed about $12 a year. Officials expect to begin issuing grant money in July.

State Sen. Ann Gillespie, a Democrat from Arlington Heights, led the push for the state law to validate the referendums. “Residents made their voices heard when they approved the boards,” she said, “and it is fundamental to democracy that we uphold their decision.”

Tess Kenny and Michelle Mullins contributed.