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County Board to vote on contentious grant for Bloomington rape crisis center

McLean County Board's Executive Committee discusses a proposal from the Bloomington-based rape crisis center YWCA Stepping Stones.
Melissa Ellin
The McLean County Board's Executive Committee approved $100,000 stopgap funding for the Bloomington-based rape crisis center YWCA Stepping Stones at its Monday meeting. The full County Board will vote on the issue Thursday, determining the outcome.

A Bloomington-based rape crisis center’s request for shared sales tax dollars reserved for mental health will go to the McLean County Board for a vote Thursday. This, despite questions surrounding the request for $100,000 in stopgap funds and whether it should have been brought to the county in the first place.

The County Board's Executive Committee on Monday unanimously approved YWCA Stepping Stones’ request, and the county’s behavioral health advisory board approved the proposal last Friday, but members at both meetings expressed a need for clarity on procedures for funding applications going forward.

Some disagreed with how the YWCA presented the request to the county, and some thought YWCA shouldn’t be eligible for the funds in question, which are dedicated to fulfilling objectives in the county Mental Health Action Plan first drafted in 2016.

YWCA McLean County CEO and President Liz German said the organization was encouraged by multiple County Board members to apply for the Notice Of Funding Opportunity in December. It was also the only applicant.

McLean County Board Chair Catherine Metsker characterized the situation during the Executive Committee meeting as the YWCA “reaching in” for help from the county. She added that it was “fine” and “appropriate,” but that the county was not the one to determine sexual assault services as a need.

While discussions at BHCC and the Executive Committee were mired by questions about protocol and procedure, German told WGLT that she’s “optimistic” the county will approve.

“I don't foresee people's vote on Thursday being about the process, because ultimately, the need is there, and that's what we're really supposed to be focusing on,” she said.

Stepping Stones has had a lengthy waitlist since it lost federal funding several months ago that it had previously relied on and was given annually. At one point, it totaled 65 people, and German said during the meeting that it caused them to lose clients.

“We saw a 70% attrition rate due to clients being put on the waiting list, meaning when we started to call clients, many were no longer in a place to start services due to the wait,” she explained to the board members during public comment.

Multiple community members spoke on behalf of Stepping Stones during public comment, including representatives from Bloomington-Normal hospitals. Bloomington police Sgt. Kiel Nowers said the department relies on staff at Stepping Stones to provide the support that police are not equipped to provide.

“When we have a sexual assault survivor, we need someone who sees it through their eyes, who can understand and empathize with what they go through, who could talk to them about it that way —because most of the police officers don't understand that world or how it came into being that way,” he said.

Nowers added that some in the department credit the uptick police have seen in sexual violence reports to Stepping Stones.

“We're not seeing more sexual assaults,” he said. “We're seeing more people reporting sexual assaults, which is what we're wanting.”

County Board member Susan Schafer is on the Executive Committee and the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council (BHCC). She expressed concern about the grant, reiterating comments she made at Friday's BHCC meeting about how she’s concerned other organizations in the county will start asking for these funds. She said it could be a “slippery slope.”

“It has nothing to do with the program, the agency or anything like that, and what they do because I think that they obviously do a phenomenal job,” Schafer said of Stepping Stones. “But it's more about others that had come to me in the community that said, ‘How do I get in line?’”

Although she was against the proposal and voted against it when it was heard at the county’s Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, Schafer said she would support it because procedures were unclear.

“I believe that to move forward and to make the process better,” she said. “This can be a learning experience.”

There is nothing directly disqualifying Stepping Stones from receiving funds, as the center’s mission to help sexual assault survivors in crisis aligns with the MHAP.

However, this would be the first time funds from this shared sales tax are used to support an existing program. Prior spending of those dollars was on new programming.

Bloomington City Council member Donna Boelen voted against the grant as a BHCC member Friday. In an interview with WGLT on Tuesday, she said it’s because she questions whether it’s “appropriate to use local tax dollars to replace federal funding.”

“And personally, I do not believe it is,” she explained. “And I would say the same thing regardless of which group came forward and asked.”

Board members and Executive Committee members Chuck Erickson and William Friedrich said during the meeting that they had questions stemming from this discussion. Neither responded immediately for comment about what those questions might be.

German with YWCA said she intends to be at the full County Board meeting Thursday to help answer any questions for the organization.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.