If voters in four West Side neighborhoods can get past all the retention judges and the useless advisory referenda to reach the bottom of the Nov. 8 ballot, they’ll find something very unusual by Chicago standards.

It’s a binding referendum on an important issue that would require them to impose higher taxes on themselves.

Residents of North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park and the Near West Side are being asked to approve creation of a special taxing district that would establish a new community mental health center serving their area.

OPINION

The West Side Expanded Mental Health Services Program promises to provide free services to any resident of its territory who needs help in “overcoming or coping with mental or emotional disorders.”

The program would be financed through a property tax levy of up to $1,125,000 a year, which supporters say would cost most residents no more than $8-$20 annually.

If you’ve never heard of such a thing, neither had I, although it turns out one such program is already in place after having been approved four years ago by North Side voters in Albany Park, Irving Park and North Park.

Suburban residents are accustomed to being directly asked to vote to increase their taxes—for improved schools, libraries and parks. It’s a rarity in Chicago where city leaders prefer to control such decisions themselves.

In this case, the idea of a property tax to pay for better mental health services didn’t start with City Hall, where the emphasis has been on cutting and consolidating mental health programs to save money.

Rather, it sprang from community organizers who decided to skip those political leaders and make the case directly to their neighbors in hopes of counteracting such cuts.

I met Friday with a small group at the home of Jacquelyn Ingram, who lives in a greystone just west of Douglas Park, a focal point for the constant sirens that attest to the stress upon the people who live there.

Igram observed she heard 13 gunshots last night, and the others nodded knowingly.

The ongoing violence is both cause and effect of the mental health challenges facing this community, as are poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Ingram, a retiree, and Janice Oda, an unemployed finance professional, said they knew of the great need for mental health services in their community even before their pastor at St. Agatha Catholic Church asked them to take on the task of circulating petitions to put the referendum before voters.

But the response they received from those who signed the petitions convinced them that much more.

“The people in the community surprised us,” Ingram said. “They were very, very enthused about this.”

Michael Snedeker, executive director of the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, said the city’s six surviving city mental health clinics provide services only to those with the most severe mental illness.

The West Side program, which would operate in its own facility independently of the city, hopes to address a wider array of mental health needs with a focus on early intervention and preventive services.

Willie “Westside Bill” Stovall, a ComEd retiree, said he envisions programs for veterans and substance abusers.

Allan Evans, a retired special ed teacher, said he sees a need for more re-entry programs to support individuals discharged from jails and hospitals as well as the military.

The mental health center district covers 111 precincts in seven wards. Under the law creating the program, the mental health service tax can’t be increased in the future without another referendum.

Oda said the program, which even at $1 million would operate with limited resources amidst a sea of need, “won’t be a panacea.”

But she emphasized: “It’s a start.”

It’s the kind of start that deserves respect: a community stepping up to solve its own problems.