According to the local press, some River Forest trustees are again looking to impose home rule on our community. The Illinois Constitution permits elected officials in municipalities with populations of 25,000 or more to impose home rule on their citizens. That is how Oak Park and many other communities became home-rule units. There was no referendum for securing their residents’ permission; it was all done by fiat.
River Forest, however, escaped home rule because of its smaller population. To impose home rule, our elected officials had to ask the permission of home owners who voted “No” by a resounding 79.6%. This referendum occurred only about six years ago, but it seems that those same officials have short memories.
What is home rule (HR)? It is the power given to elected officials to tax, spend, and borrow almost without limit. In other words, elected officials in HR communities can borrow money for any public purpose without a referendum. The debt limit for non-home-rule communities is 8.625% of equalized assessed value; there is no debt limit in HR units. This power opens the door to abuse.
For example, the village leaders of Schaumburg spent $15.7 million in one year for a convention center that many of its taxpayers regarded as corporate welfare. Also, the number of village employees making over $100,000 increased from 30 in 2005 to 110 in 2008. When citizens began to ask for more transparency in the decision-making process, one village board member said he was insulted, that people would only start asking a lot of questions and become confused. [Compass Magazine, Illinois Policy Institute, Spring, 2009].
According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune [6/10/12], Bridgeview officials declared that the 2,000-seat Toyota Park would put the small Chicago suburb on the map. The home of the Chicago Fire broke ground in 2005. Between 2005 and 2012 Bridgeview’s debt soared 585%, resulting in the highest rate of debt in the Chicago region. In less than a decade, the village had to nearly triple the Bridgeview property tax bills. There are examples of bankrupt home-rule cities in other states, but let’s finish up with another Illinois example, i.e. the Chicago suburb of Markham.
In 2013 the city purchased a business from its attorney for three times its 2008 appraised value [Chicago Tribune investigation, 4/5/13]. It seems that the Markham Roller Rink was past its prime. The owner was the city attorney who had worked for years under the mayor at that time and had backed him politically. The owner was also the son of the suburb’s former mayor. The city paid $1.7 million for the rink after an appraiser, who had been discipline twice by the state and censured by the industry group over an alleged ethical breach, reappraised the business.
According to Rebel Cole, finance and real estate professor at DePaul University, “It appears to be an insider sweetheart deal.” These and other abuses of power illustrate how dangerous it is to give unbridled political power to elected officials.
Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to contact our village trustees and tell them again that we taxpayers don’t want home rule.
Al Popowits is a resident of River Forest.