Guest Column: The real story on home rule

Guest Column: The real story on home rule

By John Cook

Part of the 2003 Rockford daily paper’s editorial agenda expressed a wish for Rockford voters to reinstate home rule status. Home rule was given to all Illinois municipalities with a population of 25,000 or more with the adoption of the 1970 Illinois Constitution. Home rule can be adopted by any municipality by referendum, or rescinded by any municipality in the same manner.

Upset by tax increases, Rockford voters rescinded home rule in 1983. The only municipalities in the immediate area to operate as home rule units are DeKalb and Freeport.

According to the Illinois Constitution, “a home rule unit may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt.” Most of the time, as affirmed by Illinois courts, home rule does not allow for the pre-emption of the Illinois Compiled Statutes.

Unfortunately, without hiring an attorney and going to court, it is impossible for the private citizen to know just where home rule status ends and state regulations take over. Take my experience as a resident of Freeport as an example.

First, a quick overview of the issue. In August 2001, Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz devised a plan to fund a $2.5 million city contribution for construction of a new Freeport Public Library. The mayor’s plan, which would use reserves from a couple of different funds while pledging not to raise “sales or real estate” taxes, was subsequently approved in resolution form by the Freeport City Council the following month.

Some people in Freeport did not like the mayor’s plan and were successful at circulating a petition to put the question of revoking the city’s resolution on the spring 2002 ballot (because a resolution, as opposed to an ordinance, is not legally binding on the city, the referendum could only be advisory). Regardless, the referendum forced Mayor Gitz to defend his funding plan.

The mayor, on many occasions, pointed out that his funding plan—because it relied upon reserves—meant no increase in property taxes. Mayor Gitz, a lawyer, wrote to the Freeport-Galena Area Association of Realtors, saying: “Under Illinois law, public libraries are usually financed by bonds backed by property taxes. We know property taxes are already too high.”

On March 17, 2002, Freeport voters supported the mayor’s funding plan and voted not to revoke Resolution 2001-56.

However, by June, the money the resolution earmarked for Freeport’s new library was needed to balance the city’s budget. On July 1, the Freeport City Council approved the 2002-03 fiscal budget. With barely anyone in Freeport noticing, including the media, the newly-passed appropriations ordinance allocated the funds that had been promised for library construction to other purposes.

Because the Freeport Public Library Board of Trustees had about half of the $7.4 million project’s cost in various funds and pledges, they broke ground for the new facility on Aug. 15, figuring the city’s contribution would be forthcoming.

By January of this year, word was leaking out of Freeport City Hall that a bond issue might be used to fund a $2 million commitment to the library project. The bond idea did materialize and is currently being considered by the Freeport City Council.

Illinois municipalities, home rule or not, regularly issue bonds for library construction, and specific mechanisms for such can be found in the Illinois Local Library Act (75 ILCS).

In Freeport, however, the Local Library Act has been thrown out the window. The statutes say library construction bonds can only be for 20 years. Freeport’s length of repayment is 25 years. The Library Act says there has to be a designated funding source (tax), and if you’ve followed the dictates of the statute, at the end of 20 years “the tax shall cease.” In Freeport, we have no specific funding source. Mayor Gitz has promised property taxes won’t be used, but how does he know how an expenditure with no designated funding source will be paid when he’s no longer mayor?

While home rule authority grants plenty of unregulated power, I did not think home rule could be used to override protections that the Illinois General Assembly had guaranteed to taxpayers through state statute—in this case, the Illinois Local Library Act. Furthermore, I have yet to find an instance that any Illinois home rule municipality has used the privilege to provide construction bonds for another governmental unit. Because of these things, I began asking my elected officials how this bond issue could be considered as acceptable under current Illinois law.

Thus far, I have only received two responses. Senator Todd Sieben, R-45th district, and Assistant Republic Leader of the Illinois Senate responded to my concerns with—amazingly—almost verbatim, the same answer Mayor Gitz had verbalized to me six weeks earlier. The explanation goes like this: “The City of Freeport through its corporation counsel and with the advice of experienced special counsel is acting appropriately as a Home Rule Community.” Suspect is the fact that with all of this nameless “counsel,” nary a lawyer has gone on the record at a Freeport City Council meeting explaining how home rule status allows for circumvention of the Illinois Local Library Act.

If the Illinois Local Library Act does not apply in home rule communities, then the libraries contained within have lost their autonomy from the local municipal government, something else the Act protects.

What the daily paper says about home rule—that it “keeps power and accountability closer to home,” just might be true, if you have the money to keep a lawyer on constant retainer.

John Cook is a resident of Freeport.

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