Citizens ask for tax increase to pay for mental health services

Rosemary Tirio first saw the need for mental health services in her community back in 2005, when her goddaughter was dealing with severe depression.

“I made a million phone calls, and no one would take her because she didn’t have insurance,” Tirio says. 

She and her fellow organizers at Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers are trying to do something about it. The group has introduced a referendum on November’s ballot that would restore funding for the North River Mental Health Center in North Park, making it possible for the center to provide services to the community. 


The group collected 2,650 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.


The referendum asks the community surrounding the center to pay for mental health services through a tax increase of .004 percent, or $4 for every $1,000 currently paid in property taxes. It would bring about $500,000 to the center and restore its funding to the level it was at nearly 40 years ago. 


When North River Mental Health Center opened in 1969, 14 therapists served the community full time, providing free counseling services, home visits, school visits and group therapy. Now that number has dwindled down to three, and the services are no longer free. 


The drastic decrease in services is a result of funding cuts. North River’s funding has been cut 75 percent since it first opened nearly 40 years ago, according to the group. 


Diane Plotkin worked at North River for 27 years and continues to advocate for mental health funding since her retirement. She says the current Daley administration has ravaged mental health funding in the city.


“The city of Chicago had one of the best mental health systems in the country prior to the current Mayor Daley coming in,” Plotkin says, “We’ve tried negotiating with the city, we’ve tried badgering the city, we’ve tried working with the city in every way.”


Four years ago, the group decided to try a different strategy – to get the community to contribute. They put a similar referendum on the ballot. It passed, but action was never taken by the city council to make the increase law.


Now the group has the backing of several city alderman, including Alderman William Banks, D-36, who introduced a corresponding ordinance at July’s city council meeting. The group has also launched a door-to-door voter education campaign about the referendum and are confident that it will pass again. 


Bob Gannett, a community organizer with Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, says the community has been very receptive to the referendum.


“The community has stepped up and said, ‘We are going to do this. We’re not going to wait for downtown,’” Gannett says. 


Shirley Webber is a member of Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers. She said that the community needs better mental illness services. 


“If you have cancer, you go to the doctor. But if you have mental illness or post partum depression, they tell you call back next week,” Webber says, “You’re ready to commit suicide and they say to call back next week.”


Webber says people are just starting to understand the prevalence of mental illness in society. The U.S. Surgeon general estimates that in the next six months, 19 percent of the population will experience some form of mental illness. The group says that means as many as 19,100 residents around North River will be affected.


Rosemary Tirio says that the referendum won’t just affect those who need the services – it will benefit the whole community. 


“I think there are a lot of mentally ill among the population who are not able to get services,” she says. “They go undiagnosed and then contribute to crime and problems in the neighborhood.”


The referendum, which will be on the ballot on Nov. 4, will affect people living in the communities of North Park, Albany Park, Peterson Park, Irving Park, Mayfair, Sauganash, Hollywood Park, Independence Park and Forest Glen. If it passes, the corresponding ordinance will then be taken up by city hall to become part of the tax code. 


The referendum will pass if it receives the majority of votes.