With about two and a half weeks until River Forest voters can decide whether they want the village to be governed under home rule, dozens of residents turned up at a forum facilitated by the River Forest Service Club Thursday night to ask questions and hear presentations before the vote.
Since village trustees decided to put home rule on the ballot this year, there have been strong opinions on both sides about how it will affect residents. The opposition—which included residents Al Popowits and Bruno Behrend speaking Thursday—has maintained that giving the village the same authority as a larger municipality will let officials use almost absolute power to spend, tax and incur debt.
Home rule is a designation automatically given to municipalities in Illinois with more than 25,000 people. In smaller communities such as River Forest, home rule must be approved by residents in a referendum. As a home rule community, village government would be able to take any actions except those prohibited by the state constitution or statute. Currently, village officials can only take actions within specific authority granted under the 1970 state constitution.
Trustees Jim Winikates and Carmela Corsini spoke Thursday in support of home rule, which they said would let local elected officials control local matters, instead of legislators in Springfield.
“Elected officials are your friends, your neighbors, the people you see at the Jewel,” Corsini said, adding that trustees would be impacted by any changes they make the same way other residents are.
She and Winikates told the audience how becoming home rule would enable the village government to enact a vacant home ordinance to hold lenders accountable for foreclosed properties. They could make zoning variations easier to obtain and 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 if home rule were approved, a major issue raised by some residents during this discussion, the village board approved an ordinance saying it would still adhere to the existing property 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 potential new taxes listed by proponents were probably not the only ones officials 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.
When asked by an audience member why the issue is coming up now, Corsini said there was not one specific reason. She said the village board and staff have come across instances where residents want their help but they can’t do anything because the village is non-home rule. For example, neighbors have called the village about adjacent foreclosed homes.
The two groups were also at odds when asked about the limitations of home rule. One resident asked them where the power stops. Corsini said the village can’t be more stringent than the state statutes. But Behrend questioned whether local authority is ever less stringent than the state.
The village board will discuss the Nov. 6 home rule referendum at a meeting Monday night.