The Daily Journal

KANKAKEE — Debra Baron was composed and relieved after the Kankakee County Board voted 16-6 on Tuesday to place a .25% countywide retail sales tax referendum on the April 4 ballot.

“The work starts now because we know the burden to get the voters to approve this,” said Baron, director of Project Sun, an initiative of the Community Foundation of Kankakee River Valley.

Baron and a coalition of community mental health care advocates are seeking the 25-cent sales tax that will generate about $3 million annually to be dedicated solely for mental health services for county residents.

The approval didn’t come without a fight as several board members questioned the procedure to get the referendum on the ballot.

“I believe if we allow this, we’re setting a new precedent on placing the citizen referendum on the ballot,” board member Colton Ekhoff said. “If you don’t have enough signatures, the county board will put it on the ballot for you. This will lead to further issues down the road for this board and future boards in my personal opinion.

“… I’m not voting against mental health, veterans or community needs assessment. I’m voting against this process before us today. I’ll vote no on putting this on the ballot as it stands.”

The mental health coalition could have gotten the citizen’s referendum on the ballot with a paper petition of 2,800 signatures of county residents by Jan. 3. It missed the deadline because of a late start in gaining support for the measure. Its other option was asking the county board to put the referendum on the ballot.

The coalition gathered 1,148 signatures combined through an online petition and traditional signatures on paper.

Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe was asked by board member Roger Hess for his input on the legality of the board putting the referendum on the ballot.

“Are we doing something illegal if we put this before the public to vote?” Hess said.

“This board has many times initiated a county-driven referendum without a single signature electronically or in writing,” Rowe said. “You did it twice with the safety tax I believe, there was a referendum. … So a quarter of a percent tax, same thing that was put on for public safety on two occasions, ultimately didn’t pass, but that was right by the will of the voters. So there’s two ways you can do a [referendum]. It can be citizen-driven, where they come in with the petition signatures, or it can be board-initiated. So there’s nothing illegal or improper.”

PLENTY OF SUPPORT

The referendum had plenty of support from board members, including Carol Webber. She said the Community Needs Assessment from 2022 showed that residents expressed that mental health issues were one of the priorities, as well as the 2022 Illinois Youth Survey identified a mental health crisis concerning local youth.

“The concerned citizens who brought this proposal to the county board work directly with county residents, and they know firsthand the needs of the people,” Webber said. ”… We certainly are familiar with the message, ‘It is never too late to do the right thing.’ And I believe this is the right thing to do, to allow the voters to decide on this question.”

Rowe added that his office often has people walking in asking for help with mental health issues as a last resort.

“The police officers that respond, how dangerous of a situation to respond without the training, without adequate support personnel on scene with them,” he said. “My God, have we’ve not seen what’s happened in our community, right? And the attack nationally on law enforcement, and we don’t have the supports to provide them. Mental health — the response in this community is wholly inadequate. And it is to the level where it is dangerous. It is a health crisis, a public safety crisis.”

The debate among board members ran past 11 a.m. for the eventual vote to put the referendum on the ballot in the meeting that started at 9 a.m. There were 24 of 28 members in attendance, and two had to leave for work purposes.

Those voting against the measure were Ekhoff, Ken Smith, Antonio Carrico, John Fetherling, Matthew Alexander-Hildebrand and Jeffery Ashcraft.

Voting in favor of allowing the referendum were Hess, Webber, Chris Tholen, Pat Polk, Robert Ellington-Snipes, Raymond Fairfield, Chad Miller, Larry Kerkstra, Steve Hunter, Rosemary Foster, Jessica Andrade, Peggy Sue Munday, Kathleen Rittmanic-Emme, Chad Scanlon, Amber Turner and Board Chairman Andy Wheeler.

The state’s attorney’s office will write the wording for the referendum. It’s due to the county clerk’s office by Jan. 18. County Clerk Dan Hendrickson said it is his understanding that it will take just a simple majority of voters to pass.

WHAT IT MEANS

If the referendum passes, it would increase the county sales tax in unincorporated areas to 6.5%, up from 6.25%. The .25% would also be added to the tax rate in each city or village in the county.

A community health board would be created to oversee the funds.

Those speaking during the public comment portion of the board meeting included: Baron; Rhonda Showers, founder of the Mental Health Network of Kankakee County; Nicole Smolkovich, executive director of the Community Foundation of Kankakee River Valley; Alan Swinford, Manteno police chief; Eric Peterson, CEO of the nonprofit Project Head Space and Timing; and John Bevis, county health administrator.

“If we are to make a local impact, it’s going to take local funding,” Smolkovich said. “That’s the reality. We know that funding from Washington and Springfield is not always a guarantee for our organizations that offer mental health supports.

“That is why the Community Foundation needs to help educate the community on why having our own mental health board is so important. This small investment of a quarter cent would provide a stable and long-term resource of funding rather than depending on time-limited grants.”

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