By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — When home rule was taken away from Rockford in 1983, it was out of fear and misinformation, according to a newly formed committee that is pushing for its return.
The “Our Decisions. Our Solutions” committee is Rockford attorney Bobbie Holzwarth, former SwedishAmerican Hospital CEO Dr. Bill Gorksi, Pilgrim Baptist Church Rev. Kenneth Board, and aerospace engineer Rudy Valdez. They aim to educate voters on bringing home rule back to unfetter Rockford from the clutches of Springfield.
“We want to educate people, so voters can make an informed decision,” Valdez said. “The committee is going to be run much like a political campaign.”
Valdez says he expects there to be the same resistance that drove residents to the polls to defeat home rule when Rockford was socked by recession and a manufacturing exodus that sent more than 15,000 to the unemployment lines. Opponents argued then that home rule gives local leaders open season on excessive tax increases, some without citizen input. And in the early ’80s, the last thing Rockford needed were tax hikes.
“That is really the only argument the opposition has,” Valdez said. “But people were scared. The vote was reactionary.”
The former candidate for Rockford mayor added that while any initiative that gives more taxing power to local authorities could be abused. But he said it also paves the way for active civic engagement. As it stands, the people of Rockford only have a say in a five of 177 state legislative seats. But, they vote for 100 percent of those elected to run the Forest City.
“Our city council is comprised of friends, neighbors and residents who want the city to succeed,” Valdez said. “All 14 aldermen and the mayor live in the city, and are committed making Rockford prosper.”
Mayor Tom McNamara agreed, mincing no words about his vow to lead the city.
“Vote for home rule,” he said during a press conference at Rockford Art Deli Wednesday. “If you believe I abuse it, vote me out. But, keep the tool that will help move our community forward.”
The mayor said he will ask aldermen to place a home rule referendum on their agenda Monday. If they do so and the measure makes its way through committee and the full council, it will be placed in front of voters in March.
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.
The committee says it will allow Rockford to use certain taxes the city is already collecting for things state law prevents. The hotel tax, for example, cannot currently be used for services like public safety under Illinois law. If Rockford was a home-rule city, the hotel tax could be redirected to pay for for such services, without the need to rely on property taxes, which have plagued the city for decades.
“The misconception is that home rule will increase property taxes,” Valdez said. “It is actually the other way around. In fact, property taxes in the city have gone up almost 80 percent since [home rule] was repealed.”
Rockford publisher John Gile was behind the referendum to repeal home rule almost 35 years. He maintains that the Illinois version of the provision gives municipalities more power, but strips it from taxpayers, impeding their ability to protect themselves against excessive taxes and other abuses.
“Citizen rejection of so-called home rule would not be so common and so-called home rule would not be so controversial if it were not seriously flawed,” Gile says. “Its major flaw is that the Illinois version of so-called home rule denies citizens the right to control local government with a city charter or constitution.”
Communities with over 25,000 residents are automatically granted home rule powers under the Illinois Constitution. Since 1970, only four communities have voted not to use it. In Rockford, leaders have been forced to create other revenue streams as a result. Some have proven successful while others, such as tax increment financing (TIF), have been spotty at best.
“One of the main reasons the city has so many TIF districts is it is one of the few tools that we have,” McNamara said.
In a TIF district, a municipality borrows against projected real estate tax increases before they occur–usually on blighted properties. Funds are distributed to property owners for redevelopment, and the difference between the original tax revenue, which is sometimes zero, and the new revenue, represents the increment. When actual development occurs, the city recoups its investment by capturing the increments. When it doesn’t, like when projects stall, the city recaptures little to nothing. Addition revenue streams under home rule would alleviate such problems and the need to rely on cash from the city’s more than 30 TIF districts, some of which have not been profitable for a variety of reasons.
And with a looming $10 million budget, additional revenue streams that are not placed on the backs of Rockford taxpayers can only be a welcomed reprieve. And although the mayor has already vowed not cut public safety to help close the spending gap, other services could be in jeopardy. The committee says home rule will play a vital role in averting such measures.
“We are a community with challenges,” Holzwarth said. “We are also a community with a resolve–the grit to take on the hard stuff. We realize that to be a Top 25 city, we need our city government to function at the very highest level.
“All of our departments have seen cuts. And now we are being asked to cut even more, while continuing to maintain the highest level of service. But our current structure, because we don’t have home rule, is no longer sustainable, and [it] jeopardizes our future as a city, jeopardizes our financial stability, forces us to rely too heavily on property taxes and places too much of a burden on our property owners.” R.