Rockford voters to decide on home rule

By Jim Hagerty

CITY HALL — Aldermen voted 12-1 Monday night to give the electorate the choice of whether to return home rule to Rockford after 35 years.

The vote is expected to be a catalyst for almost three months of talks proponents hope will educated citizens on why they say bringing the provision back is good for the city.  Leaders say aldermen-led community forums and an informational campaign by the citizens group Rockford For Home Rule will be at the fore of that message.

“I’m a proponent of home rule, so it will be easy for me to get the message out,” Second Ward Alderman Jonathan Logemann said. “But, we want voters to be hear arguments on both sides, so they know what they are voting for.”

A provision under the state constitution instituted in 1971, home rule gives municipalities with populations greater than 25,000 the ability to create ordinances and various revenue streams that would otherwise be prevented by state law. That includes the city’s ability to institute various fees and taxes, namely levies on real estate, which continues to be the main point of contention of those who vow to fight to keep Rockford a non-home-rule city.

In short, opponents say home rule allows the city to raise taxes at will. That, they say, opens the door to fiscal abuse, which some claim occurred from 1971 until voters repealed the provision in 1983. Alderman Linda McNeely, D-13, cast the lone dissenting vote Monday, echoing that argument.

McNeely, referring to the council on which she sits, said she does not trust that leaders would be responsible with taxpayer money if given too much power. She was not in Rockford when the city had home rule, but says a significant amount of people were against it then are do not want to see it return.

“That’s a concern,” McNeely said. “And I just don’t think it’s good for our city.”

McNeely said she based her vote in part on past projects she voted against but that the city went ahead with anyway. With home rule, she said such undue power would only increase, leaving taxpayers vulnerable.

“Once this body has the authority to move forward on a number of projects that cause an increase to the taxpayer one way or another,” McNeely said, “and those taxpayers don’t have an opportunity to say no, even if they voice their concern, this body still moves forward.”

She also says she fears three months is not enough time to educate voters on what home rule is and how it will affect them, something the mayor has addressed at past council meetings. For example, if the city were to increase fees on gambling machines, Rockford taxpayers who do not own machines would not be affected. If lift-assist fees were increased, those outside the assisted-living community would not be affected by the additional cost. Still, McNeely feels March is too soon to place the home rule referendum in front of voters.

“I am not sure if they are going to get the education to know exactly what home rule is,” she added.

McNeely said her next step is to contact a group she said is forming to sway voters from restoring home rule. Sources say that group is led largely by county and state Republicans, select developers and those who pushed to strip Rockford of home rule powers 35 years ago.

State Sen. Dave Syverson expressed his derision of home rule on Facebook last week, posting a chart showing Rockford’s 9.2-percent increase in property taxes from 2006 to 2016. The chart, “Does Home Rule Really Provide Property Tax Relief?” shows Rockford among eight home rule cities, each that have seen significant tax increases over the last decade. Among them are Peoria, which saw a 50.2-percent increase; and Waukegan’s hike of 105.6 percent.

Syverson’s post set off a hailstorm of debate that pitted First Ward Alderman Tim Durkee, one of a few area Republicans who support home rule, and book publisher John Gile, who led the 1983 repeal. As a taxpayer, Durkee said he wants reprieve, too. While what property owners pay here are low compared to taxes in Chicago and the suburbs, they represent a vast disparity between the levy and Rockford’s equalized assessed value (EAV). And a disparity there is.

A 3-bedroom, 3-bath house worth $140,000 in Rockford sees a tax bill of about $4,067, around 2.9 percent of its value, of which the city collects $883, or 0.6 percent. In Naperville, the total property tax collected represents around 1.9 percent of a similar home’s value, with the city garnering about 0.2 percent. In Joliet, it’s around 2.4 and 0.4 percent, respectively. Both cities have home rule.

Rockford, for the last five years, has voted to lower or keep its property tax levy flat. How long the city can continue that trend, especially with a looming $10 million budget deficit, isn’t known. What is known is that Rockford must first turn to Springfield before making many of its local fiscal decisions. That relationship, home rule champions say, must end.

“Folks like John Gile would prefer to have the folks in Springfield control the destiny of Rockford,” Durkee argued in response to Syverson’s Facebook post. “How do you think that will work? How about all of you read exactly what home rule does. It exists across the U.S., not just Illinois. If it is so bad, why do most communities have it? Rockford continues to struggle with economic development, etc. Other communities our size do not.”

Gile said property taxes were not his primary focus in the early ’80s. His argument is for limited political control.

“No one promised to reduce taxes with the repeal of home rule,” Gile responded to Durkee, “[It was] merely to put control of taxes — and of regulating and incurring debt — under the control of the citizens instead of under complete control by the political class and their special interest beneficiaries.”

The general primary election is March 20, 2018. R.

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