Mental health tax lays foundation for improving health outcomes in Winnebago County – Rockford Register Star

Posted: March 22, 2020 at 3:45 pm

This post was added by Alex Diaz-Granados

Amid all the coronavirusdoom and gloom, there was some positive health news this week in Winnebago County.

Sixty-two percent of voters on Tuesday approved a countywide half-cent sales tax to support mental healthservices. (The election seems as if it happened a year ago, doesn't it? What a year this week has been.)

The solid margin of victory was surprising, even to Mary Ann Abate, a licensed clinical social worker and retired Rosecrance Health Network executive, who was a chief proponent of the referendum.

"I wasn't surprised to see that the margin of support was higher in the city than in the county," Abate said. "But to see such a high level of support everywhere it was flabbergasting.

Abate is among 11 members of the newWinnebago County Mental Health Boardthat will spend the coming months building a countywide safety net of mentalhealth services and deciding the best way to spend the proceeds of the new sales tax, which will sunset in six years.

The tax maymay generate up to $14 million a year. Of course, that estimate was made before we were headed fora global recession. Regardless of how consumer spending and sales tax revenue trends in the near future, the mental health board willhunt for grants to complement whatever tax revenueflows to Winnebago County coffers.

Once a menu of services is established, the board will recommend to the County Board the providers that should be awarded contracts to do the work. Ultimately, the County Board will decide who gets the money and how much of it because it is legally responsible for allocating how county funds are spent.

Abate is among nine voting members of the mental health board. The others areTim Nabors, a County Board member; Linda Sandquist, vice president of United Way of Rock River Valley; Terry Giardini, a 35-year Rockford Public Schools educator; Dr. Bill Gorski, retired president and CEO of SwedishAmerican; Richard Kunnert, retired superintendent of Rockford'sformer Singer Mental Health Center; Danielle Angileri, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; the Rev. Ed Copeland, an attorney and pastor of New Zion Baptist Church; and Julie Morris, Harlem School District superintendent.

There are also two non-voting members: Wendy Larson Bennett, a retired assistant states attorney, and Jay Ware, a community activist and Woodward retiree.

Until last week, Winnebago County was among the largest urban areas in Illinois that had no local funding for mental health or addiction services, although it's estimated that one in five county residents will meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime. Virtually everyone knows someone who struggles with mental illness, and perhaps that's what compelled most voters to support the tax, Abate said. A general anxiety surrounding the coronavirus may have been a factor, too, she said.

In a way, I feel the overwhelming positive response this referendum received had something to do with the way people were feeling this week, Abate said. Mental health matters. And right now, with all that's going on, people get it. The community understands that this is important.

Passage of the referendum will strengthen Winnebago County's workforce, said Nabors, whose County Board district spans a large swath of west and southwest Rockford.

For all of our employers in Winnebago County, and for any new employers that want to come here, we have to be able to give them better workers, Nabors said. "Now we can do that."

There is still much planning to do and it will be several months before contracts are awarded and services are rolled out, Abate said. Improving the mental health of Winnebago County residents is a long-term play.

In the end, she said, the new revenue will"help people who aren't engaged in their mental health care right now, to help them get the care they need so they don't end up on the streets, inour emergency rooms and in our jail. And it's to help our kids address their mental health needs, so we don't have a population of adults with unmet needs years from now."

Isaac Guerrero: iguerrero@rrstar.com; @isaac_rrs

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Mental health tax lays foundation for improving health outcomes in Winnebago County - Rockford Register Star

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