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Local News

Political tension runs high as Will County Board averts some health cuts

JOLIET – The state-inflicted loss of critical Will County Health Department behavioral programs was averted Thursday, avoiding some layoffs, but the agency’s executive director warned it’s only a temporary fix.

Despite political tensions running high, Will County Board members voted 23-0 to provide the local agency with financial aid. Cory Singer, R-Frankfort and Joe Babich, D-Joliet, were absent from the meeting, and Suzanne Hart, R-Naperville, left during the meeting before the vote.

Under the approved resolution, the Health Department – which the county already has loaned $3 million to stave off a cash flow problem – would defer $426,873 of that loan repayment until fiscal 2017, which starts Dec. 1. The payment deferment keeps intact adult behavioral health, crisis response and juvenile justice programs. Illinois owes the Will County Health Department just more than $2.1 million for work performed under contracts dating back to July 2015. Without action, dozens of employees would have been laid off effective May 27 and thousands of clients would go without services.

About 59 employees were slated for layoffs. Now, some will be retained to maintain behavioral health services; the exact number was unclear Thursday.

Mental health patients, doctors and local advocates pleaded with the board before the vote. Jody Martin, a local resident, shared how a loved one committed suicide decades ago because of the lack of mental health programs offered today.

“Twenty years ago, my stepbrother shot himself in my stepfather’s basement. He would have been 41,” Martin said, fighting back tears. “He didn’t have the benefit of mental health programs that we have today. I simply feel that not approving the funding on any of these programs would be devastating and irresponsible.”

Health Department Executive Director Susan Olenek described the state’s budget crisis as an unprecedented “perfect storm,” saying “no one knows” if the state will follow through on its promised grants.

Programs will evaluated for cutbacks and eliminations later this year.

“We won’t be doing business as usual. This $426,000 will provide us with some time, and give us an opportunity to do the responsible thing in transitioning [mental health] clients to other providers. We’re not going to slam the door in their face,” she said.

Doug Jones, south suburban regional director of behavioral health for Presence Health, told the board the Joliet hospital refers between 30 and 50 patients a month with a mental health crisis to the Will County Health Department for follow-ups.

The local hospital is critically dependent on the agency for its outpatient services, he said.

Some Republican board members, including Darren Bennefield, R-Aurora, said they had serious reservations about the payment deferrence, knowing that it partially pays for union employees’ 2.5 percent contractually obligated raises due June 1.

Accusations of ethics violations

Republican Caucus Chairman Chuck Maher of Naperville – who has been criticized for his committee-level vote that prevented the loan request from going to the full board – read from a written statement directed, for the most part, at County Executive Larry Walsh Sr., a Democrat.

Walsh this week called for a special session to address the agency cuts, but later in the week, the item was added to the full board’s regular meeting agenda at the request of leadership.

Maher blamed Walsh for “setting up a culture” where Health Department employees think it’s OK to call him during work hours in a threatening manner. He then claimed that one county employee called him earlier this week, and “manipulated” his mental health patients into calling him, too, which Maher called a serious ethics violation.

“I was contacted by folks with anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorders. In my conversations with one of these patients, I told her that I was sorry that she was asked to do this and I did not think this was appropriate. She replied that she felt the same way,” Maher said. “She needed a professional that should have supported her, helped her feel that life would be OK. Instead she was made to feel hopeless and desperate.”

Maher said after the meeting that he had a recording of the employee’s voice message, but declined to share the audio.

During the meeting Maher called for an investigation into the Will County Health Department to ensure “professionals serving our citizens are qualified, licensed and held to ethical standards without question.”

Vic Reato, spokesman for the Health Department, said the agency will look into any allegations if “Mr. Maher comes forward with specific information.”

Walsh said after the meeting Maher’s allegation was news to him, saying it was a political attempt at finger-pointing to take pressure off Maher for rescinding his vote last week.

“If he wants an investigation, have at it,” Walsh said.

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