Rockford voters will get a chance this spring to decide whether or not to return the city to “home rule” status. In this week’s Friday Forum, we explore the potential implications on the city and its residents.
What is "home rule" anyway, and why does it matter in 2018?
Bobbie Holzwarth is a co-chair for the effort to bring back home rule to Rockford. She gives this example:
“A senior home or nursing home frequently might call the Rockford Fire Department for assistance if they have a resident fall to assist that resident back into bed and get them stable,” she explained. “The state doesn’t allow us to charge anything for that. By having home rule, we could set a fair and reasonable fee for those lift assists.”
She adds that it would be attached only to businesses and not individuals in their own home who may need to call for help.
Here’s another example: Since Rockford is not a home rule city, leaders can charge only the state’s cap in license fees for video gaming in the city. Home rule communities can charge what they want -- and Rockford has among the highest number of gaming machines in the entire state.
“By diversifying our revenue sources, we believe that we can lessen on our property owners by reducing property taxes and/or funding more of the city’s expenses through other sources,” Holzwarth said.
Home rule became an option when it was included as a provision in the 1970 Illinois Constitution. Communities with at least 25,000 residents were given home-rule powers automatically. Smaller communities can let voters decide if they want it. Far more communities have added home rule powers than have taken them away. But Rockford voters did just that in 1983.
Voters were losing patience with city leaders after several property tax-increases. John McNamara was mayor back when voters stripped the city of its home rule status. Now his son, Tom, is the mayor of Rockford and thinks the timing is right to bring it back.
“If I misuse it as a mayor, or if you believe that I misuse it, vote me out, but keep the tool that will help move our community forward,” McNamara said. “[Voters] don’t have that same opportunity to vote for Mike Madigan or John Cullerton. You have individuals at the state who control what’s going on at the state level that no one in our community has the ability or control to vote for.”
Holzwarth says it’s more about keeping the focus on Rockford.
“We have five local legislators who do a good job and work hard in trying to represent Rockford in Springfield," Holzwarth said. "Of course, the state has a lot of issues of its own and a lot of difficulty handling even those issues, and we are way down the list in terms of the whole state legislature’s priorities.”
Professor emeritus James Banovetz used to direct the Northern Illinois University division of Public Administration. He became one of the state’s experts on home rule powers.
“This issue is primarily always tax policy, because that is something voters can see and measure,” he said. “What’s going out of their pockets? One looks at the record of home rule on a statewide basis, one sees, as a matter of fact, as we look at it some 40-44 years later, property taxes in home rule communities tend to be lower than property taxes in non-home rule communities.”
Again, because municipalities can lean on other sources of revenue to boost their budget.
Banovetz crisscrossed the state learning more about how home rule was used by different communities.
“People who want government powers kept strictly limited are happy with the constraints imposed by Springfield," he explained. "Others have the view that local people should control local tax policy. In Rockford, after the 1983 election, taxes were increased but the voters had no control over that. That decision was made by people from all over the state — members from all over the state including the city of Chicago. They had more control over Rockford’s tax policy than Rockford voters did.”
A major criticism against home rule is that it unfairly targets those who would have to absorb extra taxes and fees approved at the local level.
“The biggest person who is going to get hurt under home rule in our community is small business, and that is a shame,” according to Jim Hughes, a former Rockford alderman and county board member.
He is now trying to educate voters about the primary ballot referendum on restoring home rule. He says he's working against a timeline that starts with early voting next month.
“Right away, I am subject to thinking, ‘Why did they put it to the primary election when it is so short?’ The first time to vote on this issue is going to be Feb. 8. That gives us a very short window to educate the voter," he said.
"I think that was done on purpose. I think it is political because of a new mayor. There’s the consideration of putting a really hot issue like home rule on the ballot early in his term is probably a good idea for him, because then the voters have three years to forget about it.”
He’s not alone. Brian Leggero also is behind efforts to oppose home rule in Rockford. He ran as a Republican in the Rockford mayoral election last spring and lost to McNamara.
“We don’t really have a revenue problem," Leggero said. "For years, we have had a spending problem here in Rockford.”
Hughes says that city leaders really should be focusing on how to raise revenue in ways other than tacking on fees to local businesses.
“The city of Rockford tears down maybe 100-120 houses a year with no plan to rebuild the inner core of the city and put any housing back in its place," Hughes said. "What they are doing is they are deteriorating their own tax base. They are cutting their own source of revenue.”
Both Hughes and Leggero say current leaders haven’t earned enough trust yet to increase their local authority.
Holzwarth counters that there is a safeguard within the process.
“Everything that would be done would need to be done by the city council," Holzwarth said. "It’s not as though any of these things would automatically happen simply because we have home rule. So you have the process whenever the city council considers a new ordinance. They discuss it in open meetings and listen to constituents and debate the pros and cons before they do anything in a final fashion.”
Leggero is skeptical.
“A lot of people are busy working and raising kids and making their mortgage payments. They don’t have time to come down to the city council meeting," he said. "I’ve spoken in front of the city council a number of times and, a lot of times, their backs are turned to you and they aren’t even listening to you.”
Rudy Valdez also ran against Mayor McNamara as an independent in the last election. While he is in favor of returning the city to home rule, he says it’s really about checking the pulse of citizens.
“We should have the community with the voice to decide if ‘Yes, we want it,’ or ‘No, we don’t.’ There hasn’t been a choice in 35 years,” he said.
At its core, home rule isn’t intended to be one size fits all. Its use varies depending on local leadership and the level of citizen engagement within a community. Holzwarth says that’s why she believes the timing is right for Rockford voters to approve it.
“My passion comes from more of a civic place," Holzwarth said. "I believe home rule is a reflection of our community’s willingness to step up to the plate and be engaged citizens and to work with our election officials to make sure this community is well run.”
Rockford voters will have their say again on the spring primary ballot March 20.