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Local News

Will County committee rejects health department loan request

Executive committee backtracks amid accusations of playing politics

JOLIET — A Will County committee reversed a critical vote Thursday, potentially putting state-funded mental health services all the more in jeopardy as the May 27 layoff date for Will County Health Department employees nears.

The Will County Executive Committee initially agreed by a 6-4 vote to advance a $426,873 loan plan to the full county board for a vote next week. If approved, the money would have kept afloat the local agency's adult behavioral health, crisis response, and juvenile justice programs.

But minutes later, committee member Chuck Maher, R-Naperville, asked that the motion be reconsidered, and then it failed 4-6.

Both votes came amid accusations of Democrats and Republican board members playing politics. Republicans accused Democrats and local union leaders of turning the issue into political fodder with Monday's news conference that did not include Republican board members.

Judy Ogalla, R-Monee, who chairs the Public Health and Safety Committee, said Monday's news conference is proof of political gaming. Ogalla voted to advance the measure to the full board.

"There has been playing, politically, I believe, when there's a TV conference and me, chair of Public Health and Safety, I don't even know what's going on. That's crap. That's absolutely crap," Ogalla said. "If the people in this room want to make a difference, we sit down together. We make this decision together and we don't play games in the media. That's just plain [expletive]."

Democrats, on the other hand, accused Republican leadership after the meeting of forgoing transparency by taking a second vote after the majority of audience members — including the Health Department's executive director — left.

“I left [the meeting] with the assumption that it was going to the full board,” said committee member Jackie Traynere, D-Bolingbrook. “There was discussion was to bring it to the full board. But once that decision's made, I didn't know we had to stand there and make sure they didn't change their minds.”

Illinois owes the Will County Health Department just over $2.1 million for work performed under contracts dating back to July 2015. To make up the shortfall, the department’s Board of Health voted to suspend nine programs, including its adult psychiatric services.

Maher argued Thursday the status quo is “unsustainable,” and that loaning the Health Department money isn't going to solve anything long-term. He said he wants the Health Department to come up with alternatives.

"My question is when we take a look at all other services, what is our current staffing for [mental health] services? Is there a way to reduce these programs to a skeleton until we figure this out?" Maher said.

"It's difficult to restructure behavioral health," Susan Olenek, executive director of the Health Department, responded. "Who do you choose to see? How do you make that determination? How many clients to cut it back to? ... You're either in or you're not."

Maher said the County Board already advanced $3 million to the Health Department earlier this year due to the lag in timely property tax revenue dollars coming in.

Barring action from Illinois government, layoffs will move forward as planned, Vic Reato, spokesman for the Health Department, said.

In statement from the union representing county employees, AFSCME Local 1028 president Dale Delrose said board members are “playing political games with people's lives.”

“Not caring for pregnant moms and babies means higher infant mortality in our county. Not providing mental health services means more people wind up in emergency rooms or even the county jail. Those are the choices,” he said.

In the first vote, voting yes were Democratic Caucus Chair Herbert Brooks, D-Joliet; committee members Ragan Freitag, R-Wilmington; Don Gould, R-Shorewood; Judy Ogalla, R-Monee; Tom Weigel, R-New Lenox; and Chuck Maher, R-Naperville, all voted to advance the plan.

In the second vote, Maher and Freitag switched to no votes.

At the start of the meeting, Olenek had good news to share: The agency's vision and hearing, HIV prevention and tobacco control programs will be reinstated, thanks to Illinois Local Health Protection grant dollars that arrived Wednesday after services were determined protected under court orders.

In Springfield on Thursday, the Illinois House and Senate voted — nearly unanimously — to pass Senate Bill 2308, releasing about $700 million to fund critical human services programs.

A spokeswoman for the Rauner administration Thursday wouldn't say in an email whether Rauner would sign the bill.

"The administration remains focused on enacting a truly balanced budget alongside meaningful reforms – and the Governor will continue negotiating in good faith toward a bipartisan agreement," the statement read.

Reato said it's unclear how the legislation affects the Will County Health Department, and to what extent programs will be funded.

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