Guest Column: John Cook weighs in on home rule

Editor’s note: The following information was submitted to The Rock River Times by John Cook of Freeport—a home rule city.

Last night, at the Freeport City Council meeting [Nov. 7, 2005], I gave the following presentation regarding home rule authority being used to override protections granted to taxpayers through the Illinois Local Library Act.

Channel 17 did cover my presentation and did not do too bad of a job considering the often-referenced “complexity” of home rule issues.

I thought with home rule again being talked about in Rockford, this might be a news item for your newspaper.

Address to the Freeport City Council, Nov. 7, 2005

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the Freeport City Council, Mayor Gaulrapp, fellow citizens.

Tonight, you will be voting on a levy for the Freeport Public Library, which represents a 3.3 percent increase over last year’s levy amount. Clearly, this library levy will result in a library tax rate of greater than 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, which begs the question, “Who is legally responsible for library oversight?” I’ve been asking this question, as Alderman Boldt is well aware, for 32 months now, and there is still not an acceptable public answer in sight.

Under the Illinois Local Library Act, which city ordinances say we follow with regard to library governance, the library tax rate is set by statute at 15 cents per $100 of assessed value and can only be increased substantially by referendum. In 1981, Freeport had a referendum to increase its library tax rate to the current amount of 40 cents. This means the owner of a $100,000 home, with the $5,000 Homestead Exemption, should pay no more than $113 for library service. However, the past few years, apparently through home rule authority, the library tax rate has significantly exceeded the 40-cent limit established by voters in 1981. Last year, the library tax rate was more than 43 cents. How is this possible? Why doesn’t the Illinois Local Library Act, the state law, apply in Freeport? If this City Council is using home rule authority to bypass Illinois statutes which were written to protect taxpayers, the City Council needs to inform the public of exactly why they are doing such.

According to a memorandum prepared for the former administration by Corporation Counsel Sarah Griffin, attorney Griffin states that it is her official opinion that home rule trumps the Illinois Local Library Act. Yet, in other instances, the City Council behaves as if they are bound by the Illinois Local Library Act, such as having the library board bring their own levy forward—the City Council didn’t set this levy—the library board did. Who is ultimately responsible for setting library financing limits? Is it the taxpayers as the Library Act says, or is it the City Council through home rule authority? Is this City Council using home rule authority to take control of library financing from the taxpayers and bequeath it to yourselves?

This question needs to be officially answered before approving the library levy request before you tonight. Thank you for the privilege of addressing this body; it is not something I take lightly.

John Cook is a private citizen who has previously written on the topic of home rule.

From the Nov. 16-22, 2005, issue

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