Voters took home rule away from Rockford in 1983. Now, some are saying it’s necessary to fix City Hall’s deficit problem.
By Jim Hagerty
with Shane Nicholson
ROCKFORD — Whether home rule will help Rockford “untether” itself from the clutches of Springfield is again looming in the Forest City.
Now, sources tell The Rock River Times city leaders will soon make a push for its return.
Home rule was created in 1970 to give cities the ability to pass ordinances that would otherwise be prohibited by state law, including levying certain taxes.
Communities with over 25,000 residents are automatically granted home rule powers under the state constitution. Since being created by the Illinois Constitution in 1970, only a handful of communities have voted their way out of home rule.
Municipalities without it on their books must follow state laws for local guidelines, which continues to spark debate. And on the list of Illinois municipalities operating under home run, Rockford is conspicuously absent.
Those who rail against it commonly argue that home rule gives local leaders open season on excessive tax increases, some without citizen input. But in 1983, citizens did have a voice and they exercised it by voting home rule out after 13 years.
The effort for removal was led by local publisher John Gile, who rallied more than 10,000 people to sign a petition to place a referendum for removal on the local ballot.
Gile has remained steadfastly against home rule, claiming it strips citizens ability to control how local politicians levy taxes and control debt.
“Unlike home rule in other states, the Illinois version denies citizens the right to have a local charter or constitution to protect taxpayers from abuse or incompetence by office holders and from the hazard of easy access to public funds for developers, lawyers, bankers, and government workers,” Gile writes on his website.
Gile also notes that home rule can take voting rights from the citizenry, opening the door for increased fees, regulations and expedited seizure of private property. The latter eases restrictions in the competitive bidding process on public development and other projects involving city property.
Those who want home rule back cite an extensive list of pros that outweigh a lack of trust taxpayers have of city leaders. And while under home rule taxation by the city would be easier, some say the same freedom can be used to take undue burdens off citizens.
“Lack of home rule handcuffs the city with regard to our tax structures,” Alderman Bill Rose, D-9, said.
“A good portion of our taxes are placed on landowners, not visitors to our town. This negatively impacts home ownership, future development, and places a large portion of taxes on our lowest income makers. It also doesn’t allow us to be creative with city programs.”
Rose said home rule would allow the city to seek tax reforms and generate money for more police officers and preventative crime measures, something that often constricts non-home rule cities.
“We could essentially fund our police and fire departments in more efficient ways by using home rule, take on crime, and really impact domestic abuse and violence in our area. I don’t know a single citizen opposed to taking on crime in Rockford.”
But opponents say home rule is simply another way of disguising tax increases at the local level. Cities can introduce new fee structures for property owners, or go above and beyond state taxes on products such as gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes.
In Chicago, aldermen used home rule to push through a “soda tax” on sugary drinks. That law is now held up in the courts, costing the city further funds in legal fees prior to it even taking effect.
Some business owners, most notably those in blighted areas, say until Rockford controls its TIF districts, home rule will only exacerbate the city’s economic woes set forth by past administrations.
“TIFs are essentially back door home rule,” Jim Phelps, owner of Phoenix Traders, said. “We have over 30 of these impoverishing our tax base now with a newly developed pay-as-you-go feature that gives a commercial district only a 75 percent value on how taxes it generated in its TIF are used over an industrial TIF which gets 100 percent value for projects.
“Now with this feature, a healthy commercial TIF can now subsidize an industrial development by marching the money across multiple adjoining TIFs to where the political influence wants the money to be used. Until we get rid of TIFs, home rule is simply a no-go for me.”
But home rule allows leeway in further legal matters as well, say proponents. Lack of home rule was the reason Rockford landlords were given in 2013 when they unsuccessfully sought a way to expedite evictions. A return to home rule could allow property owners to act quickly to remedy unruly tenants without violating state law.
Others in favor of returning to home rule say those focused on the likely outcomes of new taxes—without what opponents say is representation—are ignoring the fact that voters can remove from office the persons enacting such regulations.
Mayor Tom McNamara says his office is looking at home rule as just one of many possible solutions to the city’s deficit problem.
“We have reviewed our budget extensively and we are finding there are less and less places to cut,” he said. “Eighty-six percent of our budget is police, fire and public works.”
The mayor says that an over-reliance on property taxes is slowing the city’s growth and limits the ability to secure its long term finances. Moody’s Investor Services agreed with McNamara’s outlook when it recently downgraded Rockford’s credit rating.
“We have a financial task force looking at where we can cut, collaborate or diversify and raise our revenue as we face strong deficits projected over the next several years,” McNamara said.
Even if City Hall wants to see a return to home rule, it will take the residents of Rockford to have it come back—not the city council. Rockford made an attempt to reintroduce home rule in 2006 but that push never made it to a ballot.
Some leaders would like to see the issue presented publicly in order to quell misinformation on both sides of the home rule argument.
“There are plenty of people in our community on both sides of the issue,” says Republican Third Ward Alderman Chad Tuneberg. “I want experts from both sides to sit down and explain why their side makes the most sense. There needs to be fact based-information presented and voted on by the people of Rockford.”
“Home rule certainly would allow us to diversify our revenue such as lift assists and gaming machine licenses, among a number of other alternative funding sources,” McNamara said Tuesday. But the mayor adds that home rule is not the do-all solution for Rockford.
“I think this council is committed to cutting our reliance on property taxes if we have home rule or not.” R.