Oak Park village government funding of the award-winning Oak Park Township Youth Interventionist Program, which almost all major taxing bodies share financial backing, will be taken out of the 2020 budget the village board decided Monday.
The program is an Oak Park Township-led joint effort between Oak Park and River Forest, providing the community’s at-risk youth and their families with support and counseling.
Since its 1995 creation, the program received funding from the Oak Park and River Forest village governments, townships, libraries and park districts, as well as school districts 97, 90 and 200.
The partnership puts township youth service staff in direct contact with
at–risk youth and their families seeking an early intervention to redirect young people before challenges become more complex or potentially criminal. Those contacts are often based on early referrals from partner agencies.
“Part of the strength of the program is the ability to share information across agencies,” said Gavin Morgan, Oak Park Township manager. “One of the expectations that’s laid out in the contract is the free flow of information between the police department and us, between the libraries, schools and the township.”
In 2018, River Forest’s village board decided not to renew its contract, terminating its partnership and ceasing funding.
The decision also dismantled the program’s direct communication channel to that village and its police department. Something similar could happen with Oak Park police in 2020.
According to Megan Traficano, Oak Park Township youth services director, interventionists can no longer share important information, due to confidentiality, with River Forest police regarding youths, as they had when that village was still a contracted partner.
“What that means is we could have kids on our caseload who maybe are coming into contact with River Forest police. We just can’t share the information that’s going on with the child,” said Traficano. “A lot of times the police will use our programs instead of ticketing the kid or giving the kid an ordinance.”
River Forest police can still refer kids but cannot receive follow up information.
At a Nov. 11 meeting, the Oak Park village board discussed potentially terminating its Youth Interventionist Program funding as well.
LaDon Reynolds, Oak Park police chief, told the board how officers collaborate with interventionists.
“We observe a kid in crisis or somebody who needs some sort of extra help, then we’ll make that mention to the interventionists, and they’ll step in and deal with it,” said Reynolds. “We don’t want to turn every interaction with a juvenile into a police interaction.”
At the meeting, resident George Bailey urged the board to continue funding the program, citing its intrinsic value.
“The Youth Interventionist Program is critically important to the health of our overall community and especially important to the future success of children in our schools dealing with grief, trauma, mental illness, displacement, undiscovered challenges,” said Bailey.
While the board agreed that the program was vital, some members believe that Oak Park Township is capable of entirely funding the program without village help.
“I don’t believe that the program will end with the funding ending. I think that the township has plenty of money to sustain the program on their own,” said Trustee Deno Andrews.
Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla expressed her support in continuing village funding, as well as her concern that defunding could lead to future incarceration of today’s youths.
Walker-Peddakotla said, “They are treating our anxiety and depression issues, crisis trauma issues; these are issues that, if they go untreated, they result in people not being able to function.”
Trustee Jim Taglia, who also served for six years on the township board, said the township has a $2 million reserve.
“They could easily pay for this out of reserves,” he said. The full cost of the program this year is $210,000.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said at the meeting she reached out to the township for follow up information, but that Gavin Morgan had yet to respond to her request.
“If it was important to them, they’d have been here tonight,” said Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb.
Morgan said the township did not receive an invitation to attend that meeting. Morgan was in Springfield at the Township Officials of Illinois meeting Nov. 11, receiving the “Township of the Year” award with River Forest.
Of the $2 million Taglia mentioned, Morgan said it was the township’s entire fund balance.
“We refer to it as fund balance and the board has a fund balance policy which is that we keep an amount in there equal to four to six months of operations,” Morgan said.
In the past, the township has had to dip into the fund balance to pay bills when Cook County was late in sending tax payments. It has also used money from the fund balance when the state is behind in paying program reimbursements.
The Youth Interventionist Program uses a similar reimbursement model. The township pays for everything up front, then the contracted taxing bodies reimburse their share.
“We bill for our actual cost for the program. It’s not necessarily based on the budget,” said Morgan. “What was quoted at the village board table the other night, the $61,000, that was the ‘not to exceed’ amount.”
According to Morgan, the township charged the village almost $10,000 less than its budgeted amount for the program year ending June 30, 2019. The total program cost that year was $210,301. Program staff salaries and benefits make up the majority of the program’s expenses.
“Almost all of the time, we spend less than that full amount,” said Traficano.
Morgan hoped the village would continue funding the Youth Interventionist Program or gradually reduce funding until the township found and acquired other funding.
“We do not know whether the other partners will choose to opt out if the Village of Oak Park is not participating,” Morgan said. “Instead of making up $50,000 in funding, the township could potentially have to independently fund over $200,000 per year.”
Staff, he said, continues to pursue other funding opportunities from private foundations or state and federal sources.
“If successful, funding would likely not be available until township fiscal year 2021-22,” Morgan said.
Traficano, who grew up in Oak Park and has worked as a social worker for 10 years, called the Youth Interventionist Program “truly equitable.”
“We work with young men, we work with young women, we work with people who identify different ways, different orientations. We work with all different races,” said Traficano.
In a Nov. 25 board meeting, Morgan presented his case to the board. Walker-Peddakotla stood firmly in her support for the continuance of village funding, while Andrews and Taglia held fast in their belief that the township could afford the program itself.
“The direction from the board is that we do not fund that program anymore,” said Abu-Taleb.
Village Clerk Vicki Scaman said it wouldn’t be impossible to have that line item restored, but that it “would be a stretch.”
The program will likely lose the village as a partner, despite partnership being a cornerstone of the program.
“One of the greatest things about this interventionist program is that you have all these adults, all these government entities who make up the community, coming together and working on issues that surround youth,” Traficano said. “Youth who don’t have voices because they don’t pay taxes.”