By Bob Uphues
Riverside trustees gave top administrators the go-ahead on March 1 to begin cementing an agreement with the West Suburban Special Recreation Association (WSSRA) to provide special recreation services to residents with intellectual disabilities.
But while most trustees appear ready to have the village shoulder the entire cost for the service — which will be in the vicinity of $80,000 annually, after a three-year phased "buy-in" — at least one trustee is calling on Riverside Township to step up on funding.
Trustee Joseph Ballerine has suggested that the Riverside Township Mental Health Board, which in 2017-18 is levying about $578,000 in property taxes to fund such services, should be part of the conversation, if not leading it.
While $80,000 for special recreation services represents less than 1 percent of the village's annual total budget, Ballerine said he wanted to make sure funding for special recreation services would be guaranteed in the future.
"This is the single biggest issue I'm making as a trustee," said Ballerine, referring to an ongoing expenditure that will amount to millions through the years. "It's a legacy that will affect every [village] board in the future."
More and more of the village's tax levy is going toward employee salaries and benefits, including steep recent increases in police pension obligations. Ballerine said he doesn't want special recreation to face cuts due to village budget pressures in the future.
"[WSSRA] is the right program; it's good for our village," Ballerine said. "But we need to make sure it works forever."
Tim Heilenbach, a Brookfield resident who is a Riverside Township trustee and president of the mental health board, a separate taxing body with its own board of directors, told village officials on March 1 that the township can't transfer tax money from his agency to the village.
Heilenbach said the mental health board was open to reimbursing some or all of the additional cost to families for special recreation programs and transportation, though families last month expressed some resistance to keeping, tracking and submitting receipts for reimbursement.
The Riverside Township Mental Health Board's 2017-18 budget estimates about $588,000 in revenues and about $505,000 in grants to core agencies providing services related to mental health. The core includes Pillars Community Services, Helping Hand Rehabilitation Center and Community Support Services.
Ballerine pointed to the mission statement of Helping Hand — "to assist persons with disabilities to achieve the highest level of independence through quality programs" — to argue for the township's assistance with special recreation funding.
"That's exactly what we're talking about here, except [for] recreation," Ballerine said at the village board's March 1 meeting.
The mental health board also carries a cash reserve of more than $400,000, representing six to eight months of annual expenditures. The amount is so high, said Heilenbach, in order to protect core agencies in case the state cuts or suspends funding for such services, as happened during the recent state's budget impasse.
What Ballerine wants, he says, is a partner. Whether it's the mental health board, Riverside Township itself, or assistance from state legislators, such a partnership might also benefit the other villages the township serves: North Riverside, which became an active member of WSSRA as of Jan. 1, and Brookfield, which is a member of the South East Association for Special Parks and Recreation (SEAPSAR).
"If we can partner with the township, we're all served better by tax dollars that are already being collected," Ballerine said in a phone interview with the Landmark.
Heilenbach said he doubted the funding could come through the mental health board, due to laws governing suburban mental health boards. He said he was unsure about Riverside Township Board of Trustees' ability to partner with the village, but said he had brought the matter to the attention of Riverside Township Supervisor Vera Wilt.
"I'd be open to talk to anybody about it," Heilenbach said. "It's that important. All we can do is talk and find out."