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By Devin Rose
River Forest voters will be asked on their election ballot this November if they want the village to become a "home rule" community. The village board approved the ballot initiative at a special meeting, Aug. 7.
The resolution asks voters, "Shall the Village of River Forest become a home rule unit pursuant to Article VII, Section 6 of the Illinois Constitution?"
As a home rule unit, the village would have all the same powers as the state — particularly with respect to raising taxes — and can take any authoritative actions except those that are limited by the state constitution or statutes.
Non-home rule communities like River Forest can only take action specifically granted by the state. For example, state tax cap laws limit non-home rule communities' ability to raise property taxes to 5 percent or the consumer price index, whichever is less.
Communities with a population over 25,000 are automatically designated as home rule and are not constrained by non-home rule tax cap laws.
A handful of residents who oppose the change have already met to start strategizing how they will educate others about the matter, said Al Popowits, a River Forest resident who attended last week's meeting. He said he was involved in the opposition effort in 2006, when a committee studying the issue narrowly voted in favor of putting a similar referendum on the ballot. The village board, however, decided against it.
Popowits said becoming a home rule community would give current and future trustees power that is nearly absolute, which makes him "uncomfortable." He questioned whether referendums to borrow money would still be necessary. Getting rid of them would do away with the democratic process, he fears, because leaders would no longer have to state their case before taking an action.
Since home rule communities are allowed to raise property taxes above the tax cap, trustees are discussing an ordinance that would still limit them to that cap. But Popowits pointed out that such an ordinance could be changed by a future board.
"We know that power can corrupt some people," he said, "and I don't want to give any board of trustees in River Forest that kind of power."
Village Attorney Lance Malina said a big question in the debate is whether voters place more trust in their local leaders or in the legislature in Springfield. He acknowledged that, with a greater range of choices, "I guess there's more room for mischief."
Malina added that certain actions, like changing the village's form of government, would still require a referendum, but switching to home rule means fewer referendums in other areas.
According to Village President John Rigas, one of the biggest reasons for wanting home rule status is to be prepared for what happens in Springfield. He said legislators have talked about taking part of the village's income and sales taxes.
If that happens, implementing other taxes could make up for the lost revenue, and the board might not have to raise property taxes as much.
"We really have no idea," he said of the actions that might come out of Springfield.
But becoming a home rule community would give the village more tools and flexibility to prepare for the future, Rigas said.
The trustees will discuss the proposed tax cap ordinance at a meeting on Aug. 20.