Winnebago County board to consider placing half-cent sales tax referendum in March ballot to fund mental health services

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Winnebago County voters could have more to decide than their pick for president during the March primary.

Mental health and drug addiction are issues nationwide and the Stateline is no exception. To help, local advocates are seeking assistance from voters.

The Winnebago County Board Finance Committee unanimously approved adding a sales tax referendum to the March 2020 ballot Thursday evening. When voters go to their polling place, they’ll decide whether or not to impose a half percent sales tax for mental health services.

Since Singer Mental Health Hospital closed in Rockford in 2012, state funded mental health dollars have steadily declined. Local experts say Winnebago County is among the only counties in the state to not have local dollars support mental health initiatives.

Advocates want to put a system together to help the sickest and poorest in Winnebago County. A representative from the Rockford Regional Health Council, Winnebago County Health Department, among others were at Thursday’s committee meeting. They predict the half a percentage point sales tax will bring in $12 million annually.

The money would go to existing agencies to help fill gaps for services and would be run by a Mental Health Board. The group would be made up of members of different agencies and county leaders. Seeking agencies would be vetted and go through an application process to receive tax dollars.

Experts say something has to be done as the opioid epidemic and number of suicides continue to grow.

Advocates say the Rockford region has a huge gap in mental health services for adults but even bigger for children.

In the Stateline, there are no services for children under 11. Furthermore, local behavioral health experts say there is a bigger lack of services for low income families due to lack of providers.

Supporters say passing this referendum could be a game changer for Winnebago County families.

“[It] would have a tremendous impact,” said Winnebago County Board member Burt Gerl (D-15). “Not just the county, but the region as a whole. We could put the $12-14 million per year into fighting mental health? That’s a win for everybody.”

“There are people that are in mental health crisis that are simply being turn away because there isn’t sufficient beds or personnel to deal with them,” said Behavorial Health Committee member of the Rockford Regional Health Council Paul Logli. “Those are the people that are maybe committing suicide, maybe living on the street, maybe trying to self medicate with opioids. It’s a significant problem. Then we also have people that end up in the jail.”

“It’s really tough in this kind of environment, especially with the state adding on taxes and fees daily it seems, to ask the voters for more,” said Gerl. “But the need is there. We don’t have any way to pay for it.”

The finance committee amended the referendum with a six year sunset clause to have an end date of March 2026. It will now go to the full county board for consideration next Thursday. The resolution has to be approved by next week to be eligible to be on the March ballot.

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