On Nov. 6, River Forest voters will make a momentous decision. They will chose or reject home rule. Unfortunately, many voters are unprepared to make that wrenching decision. Therefore, an explanation may prove useful.
Home rule gives elected officials almost unlimited powers to tax, to spend and to incur debt. Referendums would be virtually abolished for municipal purposes. The village board of trustees could, for example, ignore real estate tax caps, increase real estate transfer taxes, put a head tax on university students, raise the sales and gasoline tax, etc.
Why are River Forest voters voting on home rule? The short answer is that River Forest has a population of less than 25,000. The longer answer is that under the 1970 Illinois State Constitution, the state legislature decided that all municipalities with populations of 25,000 or more would automatically have home rule. This is how our neighbor Oak Park and many other Illinois communities acquired it.
Have any municipalities ever terminated home rule? Yes, Rockford, Villa Park, Lombard and Lisle. A poignant example is Rockford, whose citizens, after experiencing significant tax increases, mounted a referendum to abolish home rule. Unfortunately for Rockford’s taxpayers, the city fathers they had during that period issued municipal bonds. Those debts continued to shackle taxpayers with a property tax rate in excess of its former non-home-rule statutory limit. Elected officials like to argue that voters can always vote them out office, but they fail to add that the debts incurred during home rule will remain.
Of what value are elected officials’ guarantees not to exceed real estate tax caps or to pass other taxes? Voters should understand that promises made by elected officials are not legally binding on current or future office holders. For example, in 2002 Bridgeview elected officials promised that with home rule, the financial future of the village would be stable and secure. Today, Bridgeview leads the region with 11 times the debt rate of the average town; has a credit rating approaching junk status; and in the past 10 years has tripled the homeowners’ tax bill.
Have other home rule municipalities gotten into trouble? Yes, the most recent examples are found in both Illinois and California. In Illinois, our neighbor, Bellwood, just made headlines by paying its recently retired village manager $472,000 in his last year of service, plus other benefits. California’s “charter,” aka home rule, cities of Compton, San Bernardino, Vallejo, and Bell are all in or near bankruptcy.
Why do village trustees want home rule? The board claims that River Foresters are second-class citizens because state laws limit the village’s ability to tax and spend. The board also says it wishes to pursue as-yet-unidentified urban development projects. The board has not explained how the village’s non-home-rule status has prevented it from pursuing those projects. It should be pointed out that Town Centers I and II were completed without home rule.
Finally, does home rule necessarily lead to higher taxes or bankruptcy? Absolutely not. Competent, intelligent, honest, hard-working elected officials and an informed citizenry can prevent the worst excesses of home rule.
Al Popowits is a resident of River Forest.