Pekin Daily Times

Cutting budgets can be costly

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

PEKIN, Ill. — Let’s say you decide to give your household budget a severe pruning, and that you take the state of Illinois as your budgeting role model.

Perhaps you have a goal of cutting $500 from your monthly expenses. A quick and easy route to success would be to decide that henceforth your family shall buy no more groceries. You feel pretty darned good about this quick fix, and you brag to everyone that you will probably take a nice vacation next year with all the money you’ve saved.

Of course, the need to eat doesn’t go away, but no matter. You haven’t given any thought to the fact that your restaurant budget has skyrocketed to several thousand bucks per month. So you stay secure in your smugness about your grocery cuts.

That, I think, is a pretty good way of explaining how politicians budget.

If you spend all day listening to the scanner and if you edit a lot of police and court briefs, you will quickly come to the conclusion that the state of Illinois did not save a penny when, several years ago, it closed down the Zeller Mental Health Center as well as many others. Heck, just reading your paper every day should clue everyone in about this problem. You don’t need a degree in psychiatry to see that a certain number of the folks keeping the police busy should more properly be dealt with by mental health professionals.

We have a lot of folks who clearly need mental health services, but aren’t getting them. That doesn’t mean we aren’t spending plenty of tax money anyway.

According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, the average daily census in all Illinois state psychiatric hospitals is falling; from 1,512 in 1993 to 1,377 in 2009.

If you have ever known anybody with a real need for in-patient mental health services, you probably felt amazed and frustrated at how utterly impossible it was for that person to get admitted. I know of a case in which a man actually attempted suicide after weeks of trying to get mental health services. He was admitted to an area hospital and given treatment for his overdose — and then released the next day without ever having seen any sort of mental health professional.

People with mental health problems didn’t go away just because we reduced their services.

Instead of the most troubled individuals getting whatever help modern psychiatry could offer them, they are running loose and law enforcement gets to deal with them.

This isn’t good for the mentally ill, and it is not good for the rest of society, either. While most mentally ill people don’t pose a threat to others, certainly some do.

Dealing with the mentally ill is not something law enforcement is particularly well-suited to do. Our police, courts, jails, etc., have plenty to do just dealing with the plain old sane criminals.

Illinois likes to place younger people with mental illness in nursing homes, right down the hall from frail elderly residents. A nursing home also is not a particularly cheap way to house people. Nor is it safe.

Why don’t we just go ahead and budget some money to providing mental health services? One way or another, we’re going to spend money dealing with the mentally ill. Currently that money is spent on things like nursing homes and jails. I’d like to see it spent on psychiatric wards and sessions with psychologists.

This is just one of I’m sure dozens of ways government money is shuffled around in a way that saves no money — and possibly costs more money. Think also about all the local tourism dollars various cities lost when the state closed down historic and cultural venues to “save money” and all the single parents who went on welfare when they lost subsidized childcare so we could “save money.”

Cutting budgets might indeed be a necessity right now, but cutting a budget the wrong way can be pretty darned costly to all of us.