The River Forest Board of Trustees has unanimously voted to put Home Rule on the November ballot. This was done despite the fact that six years ago the question of Home Rule was analyzed, discussed and discarded.
The basic weakness of Home Rule is that it is a solution in search of a problem. The questions then, as now, are, "Why do our elected officials need greatly enhanced powers?" and "What pressing problems have cropped up that cry out for a Home Rule solution?"
For those who have not followed the issue, we should point out that Home Rule expands the power of municipal officials to tax, spend, and incur debt almost without limit. With Home Rule powers, the board of trustees can, among other things, ignore state-mandated real estate tax caps, impose a real estate transfer tax, put a sales tax on restaurant food and beverages, impose a gasoline tax, place a head tax on university students, and pursue economic development projects.
Home Rule municipalities have imposed more than 10 different kinds of taxes on their communities. In the past, elected officials have made promises in order to make Home Rule more palatable to their voters.
For example, the Bridgeview Board of Trustees guaranteed 1) that real estate taxes would remain frozen for eight years; 2) that there would be no real estate transfer taxes; and 3) that the financial future of the village would be stable and secure.
Ten years later, Bridgeview has the highest rate of debt in the Chicago region; a property tax bill that has tripled; and plans to boost that burden much higher (Chicago Tribune, 6/10/12).
The lesson for voters is that "promises" made by elected officials are not legally binding on those who made the promises nor on officials who replace them.
Lest anyone think that Home Rule problems are indigenous only to Illinois, the Wall Street Journal has chronicled Home Rule problems in California. There, three medium- sized charter, aka Home Rule, cities are contemplating or actively seeking bankruptcy protection, i.e. Compton, San Bernardino, and Vallejo.
However, the most infamous bankrupt municipality is the tiny working-class city of Bell. That city paid its city manager $800,000 a year and some of its councilmen $100,000 per year. As a "charter" city, its officials didn't face state salary limits.
Jessica Levenson, a local government expert and professor at Loyola Law School, was quoted as saying, "When you give a city more control, it can go one of two ways. … One way is the leaders are very successful in running that city; the other way is you get Bell, you get San Bernardino, you get Stockton." (Wall Street Journal, 7/19/12).
The lesson for taxpayers is that any municipality can be mismanaged, but the stakes are much higher for Home Rule towns.
Al Popowits is a River Forest resident.