By Shane Nicholson
ROCKFORD — Proponents say they won’t let partisan divides and decades-old talking points define the home rule battle.
Last week, the City Council voted to put the question to the people of Rockford on whether to return home rule status to the state’s third-largest city. Now, Republicans, Democrats and independents will work together to make their case to see the self-governing policy reinstated.
“What happens in one of our municipalities, and certainly in Rockford, affects the rest of the county,” says first-term Republican Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney. “It’s reciprocal.”
And first-term Democratic Mayor Tom McNamara says home rule will help the city be a better partner in its work with the county.
“We need to be financially sustainable to be a good partner, to provide the necessary services our residents need, to continue fulfilling our commitments to public safety,” he said in an interview last week.
“We don’t have the tools we need to do the job, and we’ve become over-reliant on people who pay property taxes.”
Critics have hit out at the proposal, set to go to the ballot in March 2018, as a way to raise property taxes without a check on the mayor’s office or the council. Republican State Sen. Dave Syverson two weeks ago posted to Facebook a chart detailing property tax rises in various Illinois cities.
The chart, “Does Home Rule Really Provide Property Tax Relief?” shows Rockford among eight home rule cities, each that have seen increases in property tax revenues over the last decade. Among them are Peoria, which saw a 50.2-percent increase; and Waukegan’s hike of 105.6 percent.
However, Rockford is unique on the chart as the only city to see a decrease in population over that time, and its average property values are up to 60 percent less than some of the cities Syverson listed.
Ultimately, the chart, say home rule supporters, made a case for trusting city council with the powers home rule would grant. Rockford has seen a 9.2 percent increase in property tax funds collected, indicating a council and mayor’s office which worked against raising property taxes. In its most recent budget, the city proposed a decrease in the property tax levy of $406,512, the fifth consecutive year Rockford has either maintained or reduced its amount of funds collected from property taxes.
“This should be celebrated for fiscal responsibility — it should not be used as a talking point opposing home rule,” says McNamara. “The senator shouldn’t be bashing us. He should be asking us, ‘How are you so fiscally responsible so I can bring this to the state?’ because Springfield clearly is not.”
The trouble with Springfield
The state came out of a two-year budget impasse in the summer. As part of the deal, Springfield is now keeping a 2 percent administrative fee on sales tax collected in communities and counties across Illinois. That move, say home rule proponents, is another example of how trusting Springfield to resolve local issues is a failed plan.
“(The county) took a $2.3 million hit on our budget once Springfield got their budget together,” said Haney. “From that, $540,000 is going to this administrative fee. They took 2 percent of our 1 percent (public safety sales tax) in this administrative fee out of our public safety budget at a time we have real public safety issues to solve here.”
The city also anticipates around a $2.4 million hit on its revenues due to the fee collection, including nearly $610,000 on locally imposed sales taxes split between its general fund and the Capital Improvement Program (CIP).
“The $300,000 they’re taking from the CIP, that’s the budget for road work in an entire ward,” McNamara says. “That’s a real loss for our community that we have to assume will continue and we have to find a way to overcome.”
The Illinois Municipal League, an independent lobbying body representing cities and towns across the state, is pushing Springfield to halve the administrative fee. In the meantime, some towns have taken steps to offset the loss of funds.
Meanwhile, the GOP tax bill moving through Congress is expected to depress home values across Illinois, further limiting how much cities and counties can rely on property taxes to fund services. The plan will eliminate the ability of taxpayers to deduct state and local taxes from their federal tax bill, which analysts say will deeply impact Illinois. So far, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has been onside with his party’s efforts in Washington.
Downstate Danville recently imposed a new user fee on garbage and sewage services, with the funds dedicated to paying escalating pension costs for public safety employees. Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said the fee was brought in to avoid further raising property taxes and to spread the cost around to organizations and groups which are tax exempt but still rely on public safety systems.
“We created the public safety pension fee so that everyone shares the burden, and also so that people had a better understanding of what it costs,” Eisenhauer told the Chicago Tribune. Such a fee is possible to collect in a home rule city without a referendum.
Critics of the plan say such steps are just the reason they want Rockford to eschew a return to home rule status, something voters took away from the city in 1983.
But towns in Illinois have implemented measures to allow citizens input on such decisions. Downers Grove passed a law requiring city hall to declare in advance any policies that would not be available in a non-home rule city. A public notice is followed by a comment period before adopting such legislation.
McNamara says communications will be critical for his office and the city council, not just in returning home rule to Rockford but in implementing changes via the measure should it pass.
“We have to try to do better every day in telling citizens what we’re doing and how this could impact their community,” he said. “We need to hold town halls and answer these questions so that people understand how their government works, and how it’s trying to work.”
The mayor adds he is looking forward to the chance to discuss with the proposal’s critics the role of home rule in overcoming Rockford’s financial challenges.
Haney says it’s important to look at home rule as just one part of the overall mechanism of local government, and one that requires the same accountability from officials and voters as any other.
“Home rule is and will always be a tool in the toolbox (for local governments). Could it be misused? I guess it could be. Could it be effectively used? There’s plenty of evidence of that from communities, too.”
The chairman pointed out that McNamara and Rudy Valdez, a 2017 independent candidate for mayor who sits on the board of a committee supporting a return to home rule, accounted for 84 percent of the vote in last April’s mayoral election. But he says supporters cannot rely on the same kind of backing for home rule without educating voters.
“Part of this next few months is going to be going from making something that is conceptual be a more real, specific, ‘here are some ways it could be used.’”
And he added there’s no intention of bringing home rule to Winnebago County in the future, a move which would require a change in the county’s form of government. Currently, Cook County is the only county in the state with home rule status.
Home rule returns to the City of Rockford ballot, March 20, 2018. R.