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By Devin Rose
The River Forest village board will re-open a contentious debate in the coming weeks about whether to ask voters in November if they want the village to become a home rule community, which would give the board broader powers to address local concerns than the state constitution allows non-home rule communities.
Supporters say the move to home rule—which is made automatically for communities with a population over 25,000—is beneficial because it gives the village more control in solving its own problems instead of relying on the state. But many are against the effort because they say it would give current and future board members authority to raise property taxes beyond the tax cap that non-home rule communities are limited by.
Municipalities such as River Forest that are non-home rule derive any power they have from the state, according to village attorney Lance Malina. If a municipality can't find authority to do something in the state's municipal code, it can't be done.
A memo that he put together about the issue was introduced to the board at its meeting June 18.
But the state's 209 home rule communities, which include neighboring Oak Park, have all the same powers as the state except those specifically denied by the Illinois Constitution of 1970 or subsequent laws, the memo said. So home rule municipalities can take any action except those specifically limited by the state.
"It comes down to controlling your own destiny," said Village Administrator Eric Palm.
Trustee Jim Winikates, chair of the village's Finance and Administration Committee, said it would help economic development efforts because it would enable the village to give loans to developers, which they can't do now. It would also allow for the simplification of zoning variances, he said. The board could grant staff permission to approve minor variations so they don't have to hold meetings for hours to decide themselves.
But one of the biggest dividing points about home rule is the fact that it would allow the village to impose new taxes and raise current property taxes above the tax cap.
"If we have home rule, it's giving the village carte blanche to do things that, as a small village, they should not do," said River Forest resident Rosemary Johnson. Johnson was part of a committee in 2006 that studied the impact of home rule, and she was the co-writer of a report detailing why it was bad for the village.
That committee voted 5-4 in favor of home rule, but an effort to put a referendum on the 2007 ballot was stalled.
Johnson referenced a Chicago Tribune article earlier this month about Toyota Park in Bridgeview, which is a home rule community. The village almost tripled property taxes in less than a decade to cover debt payments for the soccer stadium built in 2006.
Home rule also opens the door for a real estate transfer tax, which Johnson said is detrimental to Oak Park. She added even though the current trustees may not raise property taxes, it remains unknown if future trustees will.
"I have no idea if they're ever going to abuse it, but it's there to be abused," she said.
Village President John Rigas said trustees could always be voted out if they do something residents don't agree with. He said legislators in Springfield have been talking about taking away portions of certain taxes, and an increase in property taxes or the implementation of a gas tax, like Oak Park has, could replace that lost revenue.
Winikates said River Forest could adopt the measure with an ordinance saying they'll still adhere to the tax cap, which other communities have done.
The board will discuss the matter at its July 9 meeting. If they want to place a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot, they must adopt a resolution by Aug. 20.