Column: Thornton Township will ask voters for tax hike to fund mental health services

Thornton Township voters in April will decide whether property owners should pay higher taxes to fund facilities and services to treat people affected by mental health and substance abuse concerns.

If voters approve, owners of a $200,000 home would pay an additional $90 per year in property taxes, officials said.

“I think it’s very important we place it on there so people decide whether or not they would like this,” township Supervisor Tiffany Henyard said.

The township board voted unanimously Tuesday night to place the binding referendum on ballots for the April 4 consolidated election.

The measure would create a new tax levy that would generate an estimated $500,000 in additional annual revenue, township finance director Robert Hunt said.

Voters in other townships and Will County have approved similar questions, officials said. Typically, referendum approval allows the township supervisor to appoint seven volunteers to an oversight panel known as a 708 board.

“They make decisions on the advancement of mental health services and facilities. Some of those services are outsourced to other agencies,” township official Keith Freeman said. “It will help us expand our youth and family services that we currently have here.”

Freeman works for the township as a special adviser to Henyard and is also village administrator for Dolton, where Henyard is mayor.

“We really have to do something about our mental health in the south suburbs,” Henyard said. “Do not suffer in silence. Some people are ashamed. They do not want people to know.”

The additional resources would allow the township to meet a growing need for services in the community, officials said.

“Mental health is a very real thing,” Freeman said. “It stresses our community, it stresses our police forces and our public safety forces.”

Thornton Township Supervisor Tiffany Henyard, right, speaks during a township board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in South Holland.

Thornton Township Supervisor Tiffany Henyard, right, speaks during a township board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in South Holland. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

Thornton Township serves all of Burnham, Calumet City, Dixmoor, Dolton, East Hazel Crest, Phoenix, South Holland and Thornton and portions of Blue Island, Glenwood, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Homewood, Lansing, Markham, Posen and Riverdale.

If voters approve the measure and a 708 board is seated, members would decide how to disburse funding to agencies that provide mental health services, said Jerry Weems, the township’s executive director and director of youth and family services.

“That board will be responsible for conducting a study for the township to see where the needs are,” Weems said. “Community organizations that specialize in providing these types of services would actually submit grant applications to the township’s 708 board. Then board members will make a decision on who should get those grants.”

Agencies would be eligible to apply for grants if they offer services that help people affected by mental health or substance abuse issues or autism, Weems said.

“Substance abuse is also a piece of it,” Weems said. “Another component of 708 boards is working with populations that have autism. As many of you know we’re dealing with many folks who are on the spectrum.”

Thornton Township, like other areas throughout Illinois and the United States, is experiencing increased need for services treating people affected by substance abuse because of opioids, fentanyl and other drugs, Freeman said.

“Everyone knows, especially in the state of Illinois, there are several drug crises,” Freeman said. “We want to know from a township level how we can support other outside agencies in managing those things.”

The referendum will appear on ballots for the April 4 election with the following wording:

“Shall Thornton Township levy an annual tax not to exceed 0.15% for the purpose of providing community mental health facilities and services including facilities and services for the person with a developmental disability or a substance abuse disorder, which levy will have a single additional tax of a maximum of .15% of the equalized assessed value of the taxable property therein extended for such purposes?”

The township’s total equalized assessed valuation, or EAV, for 2021 was $1.975 billion, Hunt said.

State law allows the township to provide residents and voters with information about the referendum question, said township attorney Tiffany Nelson-Jaworski of Berwyn-based Del Galdo Law Group.

“This board is not advocating for or against the question,” Nelson-Jaworski said. “We’re simply trying to educate the voters on what the facts are as it relates to this question.”

The township has identified a need for services in the community and will ask voters whether property owners ought to pay more taxes to serve that need, she said.

“As I understand it there is certainly a need in the community and this is an attempt to plug that hole and provide services to township residents that need those services,” Nelson-Jaworski said.

Thornton Township is among the state’s most populous townships and had 157,865 residents in 2020, census figures showed. The township had 112,178 registered voters in November when voters approved three referendum questions related to honoring the late Frank Zuccarelli, a longtime township supervisor who died Jan. 3, 2022.

The three questions involved renaming a portion of Wausau Avenue near the township hall in South Holland; declaring Zuccarelli’s birthday, Oct. 29, a township holiday; and changing the township logo to add more purple to honor Zuccarelli’s work with the Gift of Hope organization.

Township 708 boards are governed by the Illinois Community Mental Health Act, a state law that was established following the federal Community Mental Health Act legislation signed Oct. 31, 1963 by President John F. Kennedy.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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