What voters need to know about home rule in RIver Forest

Opinion: Columns

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Al Popowits

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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.

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Reader Comments

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RF Achievement Gap  

Posted: September 17th, 2012 4:07 PM

There is a head tax in Chicago (Home Rule Community) for Everyone who buys a Water Bottle. So yes HR allows for a Head Tax for anything!!

Carla from River Forest  

Posted: September 17th, 2012 10:33 AM

With HR, River Forest intends to place a head tax on Dominican and Concordia Universities. They are not-for-profit/TAX EXEMPT. City of Chicago has a head tax, but exempts not-for-profits. Does any Illinois municipality have a head tax on tax-exempt organizations?

Kay from River Forest  

Posted: September 14th, 2012 7:11 AM

Another worrisome aspect to Home Rule in RF is that our elections for Village Board have, more often then not, been uncontested races. Wasn't it this previous cycle when there were 3 slots and 3 candidates? These people weren't really "elected" they decided they wanted the job.

RF Achievement  

Posted: September 11th, 2012 9:45 PM

@greg - you are spot on. Banks are in the business of making loans, that is how they make money. So they typically are Very careful but take on some risk. This HR thing - is puting lending authority (Banks have specialists for this) in the hands of elected officals, with little to NO accountability of experience in the credit markets. This is Disaster waiting to happen. What does Tom from RF say about this

Greg from RF  

Posted: September 11th, 2012 8:33 AM

Its interesting that on June 26th the Board spoke about needing the ability to give loans to developers. So the developers cannot get loans from banks? Credit is tight but banks are lending to well capitalized projects in good areas. RF is a good area. What my experience tells me is that villages and cities give loans out to projects that could not otherwise get funding. This is where cities get in trouble, they try to change the market dynamics with their actions. It usually fails.

Chuck from RF  

Posted: September 10th, 2012 6:32 PM

Just read the Chicago Tribune article. It spells out the exact travesty of the Home Rule Law that Springfield created in 1970 - that Most all States say is financial suicide. If rigas and winkates think they want to create another Bellwood -- well, they aint too smart and should not be representing us in RF.


Posted: September 10th, 2012 5:41 PM

Wednesday Journal June 26, 2012; "Trustee Jim Winikates, chair of the village's Finance and Administration Committee, said it [home rule] would help economic development efforts because it would enable the village to give loans to developers, which they can't do now." Mr Winikates, where is the money going to come from that you and the RF Board want to give to developers - FROM THE POCKETS OF RIVER FOREST RESDENTS! Do you really think we are that stupid?

Greg from RF  

Posted: September 10th, 2012 10:04 AM

@Confused...so this is the same arguments that guns don't kill people but people do. However, are we not better off when we have reasonable gun control? Bad people will always do bad things. Laws, rules and regulations are made to keep honest people honest so that we can trust the process. It does not take much imagination to assume today's honest trustees can be replaced by dishonest trustees supported by developers. What then can we do after Home Rule has passed? Vote No!

No Home Rule In River Forest  

Posted: September 10th, 2012 9:01 AM

Confused seems to be confused. Lets say it this way, absolute power corrupts...absolutely. Home rule is akin to giving small town officials absolute power. The reason for the issues in Dixon, the board gave one person absolute power. The Tribune article can be found here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/ct-met-debt-bellwood-option-b-main-20120909,0,5817738.story


Posted: September 9th, 2012 9:28 PM

@Confused. Agreed - "Bad decisions and bad people are the problem." And, my conclusion, we should have more, not less, "checks and balances." Home Rule removes some of those "checks and balances." Another reason to vote NO.


Posted: September 9th, 2012 8:53 PM

So bad decisions and abuse only happen in home rule communities? See Dixon, IL treasurer and there are a lot of stories of bad tif deals over the last ten plus years. My point, bad decisions and bad people are in all types of towns. Home rule doesn't lead to the above. Bad decisions and bad people are the problem.

Al Popowits from River Forest  

Posted: September 9th, 2012 12:44 PM

Dear Confused, Au contraire, in my 1/12/12 Wed. J. article "Home Rule Rises Again" I used the very same words! For your edification I suggest you read this Sunday's Chgo. Trib. front page article entitled "Towns borrow, You pay." This article should disuade you of your notion that Bellwood and Bridgeview are mere aberrations and not parts of a much larger problem.

Greg from RF  

Posted: September 9th, 2012 9:52 AM

@ Confused and Tom. Sunday Tribune's front page story on Home Rule does an excellent job of showing what this power means and how it is abused. It goes straight to the heart of the matter that it is more likely than not that unchecked power is abused in many ways. It gives direct evidence on how an administrator gave himself $500K and describes a system that most States reject. It is must reading and the best case to say no to this unneeded power.


Posted: September 8th, 2012 1:37 PM

Al, if your view on home rule is that it is a solution in need of a problem, why haven't any of your letters said that? Instead you're using scare tactics (Bellwood and Bridgeview) that have nothing to do with home rule which I think most people see through.

Al Popowits from River Forest  

Posted: September 8th, 2012 11:06 AM

Hi Tom, In my view Home Rule is a solution in search of a problem. The questions R.F. residents must ask are "Why do our elected officials need these greatly enhanced powers?" and "What pressing problems have cropped up that cry out for a Home Rule solution?" Al


Posted: September 7th, 2012 5:50 PM

And NEVER forget what Rigas and Winnikates (not on the Board but a supporter of) did to OP and RF taxpayers with the OPRF Referendum. There IS a reason why OPRF has a $100 MILLION surplus. The proceeding Boards COULD lower the levy, but they refuse to do so. Look at your prop tax bill and see what ONE SCHOOL with ONLY 4 grades charges you. Why expect anything different with "Home Rule"? Remember, they said that Red Light Camera is ONLY for "safety"? Yeah, right.

doc walsh from wooddale  

Posted: September 7th, 2012 3:53 PM

i lived and worked in oak park with home rule it is not for the benefit of the h.o

RF Achievement  

Posted: September 7th, 2012 3:20 PM

@tom - makes some sense. In a way, reminds me of the PD referendum - except for that at least we knew what it would cost us. This thing is like giving your child a credit card and saying "I trust you" Big difference, if the kids abuses the card it can be taken away. This thing goes on and on and would require another costly referendum to put together. I still would like to know two things. How much is the legal firm getting for their work on this and why is it needed? Silence is telling

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: September 7th, 2012 2:09 PM

RF I am still undecided. Mr. Popowits has a done a great job of showing the reasons not to vote for it. Now, the village board has to do a better job of education into the merits of and need for home rule power. I won't make my decision until I hear their side of the argument.

Al Popowits from River Forest  

Posted: September 7th, 2012 1:41 PM

I stand corrected. Al

RF Achievement  

Posted: September 7th, 2012 11:25 AM

@tom - where do you come down on home rule? Is it needed or is it overreach? I too am trying to be fair about this yet I see no obvious or compelling reason. thanks

Ray from RF  

Posted: September 7th, 2012 12:08 AM

In fairness, transfer taxes and the Bellwood issue notwithstanding, the meat of this article is that the board has yet to specify what actions it is considering, while trying to sell the deal by promising to enact oridinances that are relatively meaningless and can be repealed at any time. There is also the danger that even if the tax caps would remain, we would be subject to other taxes and fees as a substitute. We managed to get by for 132 years without HR and we don't need it now.

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: September 5th, 2012 10:53 AM

Once again, in the interests of fairness, there is one inaccuracy in Mr. Popowits post and one irrelevancy. The inaccuracy is his allegation that home rule will enable River Forest to raise the property transfer tax. in 2008, the General Assembly expressly pre-empted that home rule power so that now only the General Assembly can raise the property transfer tax. And regarding Bellwood, the village manager did not rely on any home rule power to inflate his salary.

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