The River Forest village board hosted its third and final informational presentation on aspects of home rule governance last Wednesday at village hall. Joined by several citizens, they listened to officials from other municipalities tell of their experiences with home rule, and to a local opponent of home rule.
The sessions were intended to provide perspectives on key aspects of the home rule issue in order to prepare both board members and voters for a possible home rule referendum in either the spring or fall of 2006.
Greg Bielawski, a retired Carol Stream village manager, characterized non-home rule governance as “cook book government” that’s limited to doing only what state statute specifically allows a municipality to do. Home rule, he said, allows municipalities to do everything except what state law explicitly disallows.
The one consistent message all pro-home rule speakers voiced was that there is no single issue on which municipalities have sought home rule powers. Lake Forest, noted City Administrator Robert R. Kiely, Jr., is looking to institute a real estate transfer tax of $4 per $1,000 of property value on homes sold, which would generate an estimated $1.6 million annually. Broadview Mayor Henry Vicenik said his village, which has a large shopping center that draws shoppers from several adjacent municipalities, is looking to raise its sales tax above the level allowed to non-home rule municipalities.
River Forest Village Administrator Charles Biondo expressed the general feeling of many officials present, saying “I don’t know how anybody can argue against flexibility in ways to meet the same goals.”
Biondo introduced River Forest resident Bruno Behrend as a businessman and lawyer, policy analyst, and the host of a weekend radio show. Behrends is also the state director of an organization that touts “lower taxes, less government, more freedom.”
Behrend was blunt, saying, “I’m not buying that this is a state control versus local control issue.” He said the state sets limits on localities authority to “abuse” taxpayers. Where Bielawski referred to home rule expert Dr. James M. Banovetz as “the preeminent researcher on this subject,” Behrend referred to Banovetz’s body of research as “propaganda.”
“This isn’t about River Forest controlling its destiny. It’s about the people of River Forest not having to fight with the officials,” said Behrend, who called for “far stricter controls on ability of the government to tax and spend.”
Several officials took issue with Behrend regarding his claims that high taxes are the result of irresponsible state and local management.
“(Our) costs are raising at nine percent, yet (our) income is going up at two percent,” said Lake Forest Mayor S. Michael Rummel. “We have a need for water, sewers and streets, and our residents understand that.” The post 9-11 world, others said, has put new pressures on local taxing bodies, particularly in police and fire responsibilities.
“I have a 15 percent increase in my police and fire pensions,” said Lake Forest’s Kiely. “I had nothing to say about that.”
River Forest officials voiced two concerns.
“We’ve cut everything we know how to cut without reducing the quality of service here in the village,” said River Forest Village President Frank Paris.
“The working cash fund is steadily declining,” said village Trustee Al Swanson. “There’s going to come a time when the brick wall approaches.”
Behrend, though, insisted that home rule powers would primarily allow local authorities to further burden home owners.
“When push comes to shove, home rule will pretty much go after property owners,” he said. He had supporters.
“If you’re looking for tax dollars, you’re looking at us,” said resident Marguerite Bloch.
Al Popowitz was unconvinced regarding the electoral safeguards against potential home rule abuse.
“It’s disingenuous, unfair and self-deceiving to say that you can (just vote out) the rascals,” he said.
“I don’t think the village has made any case in terms of a rationale for home rule,” said Pat Nassano.
Broadview’s Vicenik, who lost a home rule referendum in March, 2004, appeared to allude to Nassano’s point when he cautioned River Forest officials to do an adequate job of preparing taxpayers for a referendum.
“You need to be clear, and be ready to (respond) to criticisms and defend your referendum” he said. Lake Forest’s Rummel agreed, noting that an ad hoc committee there spent eight months studying the city’s finances before recommending home rule.
Bielawski said Carol Stream had taken pains not to use their home rule powers “frivolously,” and argued that due process is not ignored by governments once they obtain home rule powers. The opposite, he said, was true.
“If you look at a history of home rule, most all communities have implemented home rule exactly the way they (told voters) they would,” said Kiely
Biondo indicated that River Forest intended to make use of their peer’s experiences over the next few months, saying, “These were informative meetings, and the board will go on from here.”