By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — A city referendum asking voters to give city leaders home rule powers after 35 years drew nearly 25,000 voters to the polls Tuesday.
The sizable turnout was expected as soon as the home rule debate began in November and early voting commenced last month. As of March 13, around 1,500 people voted early. Those tallies proved crucial as polls closed and the referendum failed by 1,800 votes.
The debate was heated. Heavy resistance came from the Rockford Area Realtors, Rockford Apartment Association and the Rockford Hotel Motel Association. Each parroted the message sent by publisher John Gile 35 years ago, a claim that home rule strips citizens of their rights.
Proponents asked voters to give them the power to make local decisions that are currently made at the state level. Mayor Tom McNamara sought to use home rule to diversify the city’s revenue sources to take a heavy burden off the backs of Rockford homeowners.
And while it wasn’t McNamara’s day, as it was last spring when he won City Hall in a landslide, he said his work isn’t done. His message about home rule was rooted in fact, transparency and voter education, he said, and he’s proud of the effort.
“I will take character and tenor and talking one-on-one over big, glossy mailers,” the mayor said, referring to the onslaught of material Realtors hit voters with ahead of March 20. “We are not done. The fight isn’t over. We know home-rule helps reduce reliance on property taxes.”
McNamara and staff will now turn to budget option B, which includes the ordinance for a 5 percent utility tax on natural gas and electric services throughout the city.
A utility tax is one Rockford hasn’t charged in 16 years. Aldermen say they’ve not brought it back to avoid a levy on essential services.
“Plan B uses the natural gas and electric utility tax that City Council has avoided imposing since 2002,” Rockford Finance Director Carrie Eklund said. “That tax is estimated to generate sufficient revenue to balance the remaining 2018 budget of $3.9 million.”
Subsequent budgets could tell a different story.
“But, as a shrinking source of revenue, it will not be a permanent fix to the city’s future deficit projections,” Eklund added.
In other local races, Winnebago Sheriff Gary Caruana defeated challenger Kurt Ditzler in the Republican primary. Caruana will face Democrat Bob Springer in November.
In the race for Litesa Wallace’s 67th District seat in the Illinois House, Democrat Maurice West defeated Angela Fellars, Valeri DeCastris and Gerald Albert. There was no Republican primary.
There were three key Republican races on the Winnebago County Board. Incumbent Eli Nicolosi was defeated by John Butitta in District 8, Jas Bilich won the District 20 primary and Paul Arena defeated Kevork Muradian in District 7. R.