The River Forest village board took the first steps Monday night toward placing a referendum on next year's ballot that, if approved by voters, would grant the village "home rule" powers.
In announcing his intention to explore such a move, Village President Frank Paris said his primary interest in home rule powers is to greatly enhance the village's ability to raise local sales tax. Paris said he wants to use those increased revenues to help District 90 schools avoid an expected referendum sometime in the next two years.
When Trustee Patrick O'Brien suggested the board bring officials from District 90 into the discussion, Paris said that he had previously conferred with Superintendent Marlene Kamm, Dist. 90 Financial Officer Anthony Cozzi and the district's lawyer. None of those individuals were available for comment Tuesday morning.
Paris said he sought only to initiate a discussion "on the pros and cons" of the issue, and asked Village Administrator Chuck Biondo to give trustees a brief overview of the issue. Biondo characterized the debate over whether or not to seek home rule status as a philosophical question.
River Forest, he said, is currently restricted by what's referred to as "Dillon's Rule" (see sidebar), which restricts the legal authority of non-home rule municipalities. Non-home rule villages like River Forest may not raise sales taxes more than a half-percent.
Paris noted that he had been working with area mayors and other village officials for some time to amend state legislation to allow increased sales taxes for non-home rule municipalities like River Forest, but had failed in that
effort. Under current state law, non-home rule municipalities such as River Forest may only levy an additional ½ percent in additional sales taxes, and then only after citizen approval through a general referendum. The half-percent in additional sales taxes can only be used for infrastructure improvements or to lower municipal property taxes?#34;and only after voters approve the hike via a referendum.
Under home rule, any future sales tax increases approved by the village board would be less limited, and would not require direct voter approval through referendum. The village could also raise property taxes without voter consent.
Paris said, however, the main goal in raising village sales taxes is to avoid further increases in the village's property taxes. Ten years ago, he said, the village board entered into an agreement with District 90, whereby the village would give schools money from its Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund, in exchange for a commitment from school officials that they would not seek a referendum. Without such an agreement, tax dollars generated in the TIF district would have been diverted from the schools to be used for economic development purposes.
The district, said Paris, has met all the goals outlined in that agreement, including attaining status as the top ranked school system in the state. That, in turn, he argued, has led to greatly increased enrollment and growing pressures to raise property taxes.
"I think that behooves us to charge a sales tax in the village," said Paris.
Paris asked trustees to hear Biondo's presentation at the tail end of an unusually full and frequently controversial agenda. As the hour approached 11 p.m., some trustees argued that consideration of the issue should be deferred.
"Ten minutes to eleven is too late to begin a discussion on this. Let's wait," argued Trustee Al Swanson. Besides complaining about the late hour, Swanson and several trustees said they needed more time to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of home rule before engaging in any substantive discussion.
"If River Forest votes to allow Home Rule, I want a good, comprehensive list of what that means to the village," said Swanson.
Several trustees also criticized Paris' contention that the primary issue with home rule was aiding local schools. When Paris said the issue centered around the ability to raise sales taxes for the benefit of education, Trustee Russ Nummer countered, "It's so much more than that."
"I'd like facts, rather than pros and cons," said Trustee Michael O'Connell.
The board instructed Biondo to produce informational packets for the trustees to study, and agreed to discuss the matter at length at its regular Aug. 22 board meeting.
Home rule is a frequently misunderstood law that has engendered a good deal of concern and even animosity from tax-averse folks in recent years. What President Frank Paris is seeking through a home rule referendum is to shed legal restrictions that limit the scope and degree to which River Forest may institute taxes?#34;among a variety of other issues.
Non-home rule municipalities are governed by what's known as Dillon's rule. That law stems from an opinion written by Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice John Forest Dillon in 1868. No friend of local governments, Dillon held that the state legislature was to be recognized as having plenary?#34;or complete?#34;control over municipal governments "except as limited by the U.S. Constitution and the individual state's constitution." Under Dillon's rule, no local municipality can exercise any legal, taxing or regulatory power not expressly authorized by the state constitution. That in turn gives the State of Illinois what River Forest Village Administrator Charles Biondo termed, "underlying authority for [River Forest's] actions."
Though justices on other state supreme courts argued for "the inherent right of local self government," Dillon's rule was soon adopted by every state supreme court and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 20th century.
Starting with New Mexico in 1911, states began to legislate more flexible arrangements for their cities and towns, and today 40 states have "home rule" provisions. The 1970 Illinois Constitution basically transferred many of the powers belonging to the state to some 150 municipalities that now operate under home rule governance, including Oak Park. Under state law, villages over 25,000 population were automatically granted home rule status, while those under 25,000 are allowed to become a home rule municipality via referendum.