By Jenna Dooley
ROCKFORD — As the spring primary approaches, more money is going into a ballot question that could change how Rockford leaders make major decisions on behalf of residents. It’s known as home rule and, if you live in Rockford, you no doubt have seen signs around the city asking you to vote either “yes” or “no” on the issue.
But just who is paying for those signs may go outside of city limits. The Illinois Realtors trade association is against home rule in Rockford — and any community for that matter.
“We have fought home rule for decades, ever since it was put into the [state] constitution and probably before that, because we do feel that it takes away a lot of control from the voters and puts it in the hands of elected officials,” according to Illinois Realtors spokesperson Jon Broadbrooks. “What we have seen over and over again is that this can lead to a lot of increases in property taxes and implementation of many fees.”
For example, Rockford could charge more for businesses who want to operate video gaming machines in their bars and restaurants. Without home rule, the licensing fee is capped by state rules.
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara says he resents the fact that the statewide realtor group is sticking its nose into his city’s politics.
“I think they probably prosper from the gridlock that happens in Springfield,” McNamara said. “They prosper from having that centralized control in Springfield. To me, our goal is to reduce the property tax burden on citizens who live in Rockford, and to diversify our revenue streams so we can keep up with the pension crisis that is going on throughout our entire state.”
Broadbooks counters that his group does have a reason to take a side in Rockford.
“We represent about 700 realtors who are members of the Rockford-area Realtors,” Broadbrooks said. “So when they have an issue with a local policy, they often will communicate with us, and we’ll take a look at it — and we may get involved.”
And they have with the aforementioned yard signs and ads encouraging a “no” vote on home rule.
“In a bigger community such as Rockford, it takes a lot more money to get your message out than it would in a community — which is more typically where we work — where you have fewer than 25,000 residents,” Broadbooks explains. “Here’s the thing: Of the money that is being donated — of the 700 Rockford Realtors—they pay dues to the Illinois Association of Realtors, and at least $30,000 that has been targeted for this has come from local businesses and local people.”
Money for the opposition also is coming in from other groups such as business leaders in the community, including Rockford developer Sunil Puri.
Mayor McNamara says he has been surprised by the response.
“I didn’t set out nine months ago to campaign again, but this is so critical to the city of Rockford,” McNamara said. “Springfield is no longer the dependable partner they once were to any municipality. They took more than two years to pass their budget, increased our income tax by 60 percent, and they cut the amount of money they provide to local municipalities.”
McNamara says that is coupled with cuts to mental health services and non-profits.
“The current status quo of depending on Springfield for everything is not working. Like many cities, every single neighborhood in our community is hurt by abandoned, vacant, and foreclosed properties. We do not have the tools at our disposal that every other municipality such as Freeport and DeKalb have that are home rule communities. We are hindered and handcuffed by Springfield because we do not have home rule status. My belief is — outside of the taxes and the fees and the licenses that folks want to talk about — to me, this is about having pride in where we live.”
Mayor McNamara counters criticism that home rule could lead to an abuse of power.
“We have put in place the most restricting, self-limiting ordinances that any community in the entire state has put forth regarding home rule authorities,” McNamara said. “We have capped our property taxes at what non-home rule communities can do. If anyone want to propose a property tax increase or a sales tax increase, we will notify the media outlets, we will hold a public hearing and, instead of a simple majority, we need a supermajority.”
Another measure provides citizens the ability to recall aldermen or the mayor if they do not do what they say they will do as it relates to home rule.
Brian Leggero, who ran for mayor against McNamara, formed the group “No Home Rule Rockford.” He says he’s still not convinced it will prevent abuses.
“I know they said they put these ordinances into effect, but they are really non-binding,” Leggero said. “The supermajority on council, once home rule is restored, they could vote to eliminate those ordinances.”
McNamara thinks the criticisms are overblown in the anti-home rule messaging popping up around the city.
“I am asking for more responsibility,” McNamara said. “Our council is asking for more responsibility. Thousands of citizens are asking for more responsibility. As an elected leader, if I need more responsibility, I feel I need to give that same responsibility and authority back to voters.”
Someone else who is keeping a close eye on the ballot question is Stacey Bixby, the executive director for the Rockford Board of Elections. It’s her job, after all; but she says having important issues on the ballot is good for democracy.
“Primary elections in Rockford do not have a very good turnout, and it’s very sad,” Bixby said. “Some people would say the home rule [question] is going to bring more people out. If that’s what it’s going to take, I hope so, because primary elections and our local elections are as important — if not more — than the general and presidential elections because these people are the ones who govern us. The home rule question is very close to home for a lot of people. Whether they are for it or against it, they are passionate about it, so there’s an important issue on the ballot.”
Early voting is underway. The primary will be held March 20.