Within the last week, River Forest voters got their last public opportunities to ask questions and get information before they decide next month whether they want the village to become a home rule community.
Since the village decided to bring up the home rule issue this year, there have been strong opinions on both sides about how it will affect residents. A village board meeting on Monday only drew one speaker on the subject, but dozens turned up at a forum facilitated by the River Forest Service Club on Thursday to hear presentations and ask questions.
Home rule is a designation automatically given to municipalities with more than 25,000 people. As a home rule community, the village would be able to take any authoritative actions except those prohibited by the state constitution or statues. Currently, village officials can only take actions when they can find specific authority to do so in the constitution.
Resident Carla Graham-White asked the board on Monday how becoming home rule could help remediate vacant or foreclosed properties. Village Administrator Eric Palm said becoming home rule would enable the village to go after mortgage companies and put pressure on them to make properties habitable.
Some of the people who oppose home rule say they want less government in their lives, Palm said, but they are the same people who call the village wanting help if they live next door to a home in disrepair. A vacant home ordinance would allow the village to address that.
On Thursday, about 100 residents gathered at Concordia University-Chicago to hear representatives for and against home rule. Trustees Jim Winikates and Carmela Corsini spoke in support, and said home rule would let the local elected officials control local matters, instead of legislators in Springfield.
The opposition — which included residents Al Popwits and Bruno Behrend — has maintained that giving the village the same authority as a larger municipality will let them use almost absolute power to spend, tax and incur debt.
“Elected officials are your friends, your neighbors, the people you see at the Jewel,” Corsini said, adding that trustees are impacted by any changes they make the same way other residents are.
She and Winikates told the audience how becoming home rule would enable them to make the zoning variation process easier. It would also bring in new revenue streams from a gas tax or head tax on the village’s two universities — though they said the taxes were just options at this point.
To ease concerns about increased property taxes, which has been a major concern for residents during this discussion, the board approved an ordinance saying it would still adhere to the tax cap, with exceptions. Winikates agreed that debt could still be incurred, but a tax cap ordinance would inhibit anyone from lending the village money.
Popowits argued that the desire for home rule is primarily about money, and told attendees that the taxes listed on the village website were probably not the only ones they would implement.
“It is in the nature of government entities to borrow and spend more than they can afford,” said Behrend. “Our mindset is, please live within your means.”
Besides taxes, Popowits said home rule would take away citizens’ right to referendum. Residents would no longer have the right to participate in the decision making process, he said. But Winikates said referendums could only be conducted during elections.
River Forest residents can vote on the home rule referendum Nov. 6.