By Paris Schutz, Chicago Tonight
Residents who live in a large swath of the city’s West Side were faced with a binding ballot question on Election Day: Do you want to raise your property taxes even higher than the rest of the city?
A group of community activists spent the summer informing residents about the question, and on Election Day, the answer was a decisive yes.
By a vote of 86 percent to 14 percent, residents on the West Side voted for an additional levy on their properties.
The reason, according to the ballot initiative, was to build a new community mental health center “to provide direct free mental health services for any resident of the territory who needs assistance in overcoming or coping with mental or emotional disorders.”
That territory includes affluent neighborhoods like the West Loop and River West, as well as struggling neighborhoods like North Lawndale and East and West Garfield Park. According to organizers, the new levy comes out to a fraction of a percentage that would result in an extra $4 for every $1,000 dollars in property taxes. For $4,000, the levy would be $16, for example.
The initiative was led by the nonprofit Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers and a collection of clergy and community activists on the West Side. They spent the summer gathering petitions to get the binding referendum on the ballot, and then urging people to vote yes.
“We are a neighborhood that’s lost, and this referendum sent a message, that you have to listen to us, we have to be heard,” said organizer Jackie Ingram. “We are willing to help ourselves get out of this hole.”
The new center will treat base level mental illness, to catch people before their problems get worse and they end up in either the emergency room or jail.
“We would think about treating people who came in with depression, anxiety, those kind of things, and once we’ve talked to the people, the residents who voted for this referendum, we would be able to find out what the needs are,” said Deacon Gregory Shumpert of St. Agatha Parish in North Lawndale, who worked with the coalition to support the referendum.
The proponents say the vote was a rebuke to the systematic closing and defunding of mental health clinics by the city and state over the past several years.
“Clearly, people in the community view mental health as a critical part of their community, and our government hasn’t viewed it the same way,” says Michael Snedeker, head of the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers. “People have been able and have a hunger to restore their own mental health services.”