Voters in Tuesday’s primary election rejected the effort to re-implement home rule authority in Rockford. WNIJ spoke with people on both sides of the issue about what this means for Rockford’s future.
The Illinois Constitution grants home rule authority to municipalities that have at least 25,000 residents. Others can gain that authority through a direct ordinance. Rockford naturally qualified in 1970 due to its population, but a referendum removed home-rule status in 1983.
Proponents of home rule claimed that restoring that authority to Rockford would allow the city greater flexibility in raising revenue and reducing property tax burdens. Opponents countered that home rule would give too much power to elected officials in implementing new taxes and regulations. The opponents won the day, with about 54 percent of the votes.
But what is home rule, and how would it apply to Rockford?
Norman Walzer is a senior research scholar at Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies. He says the revocation means Rockford is now operating under a framework called “Dillon’s Rule”.
“Dillon’s Rule essentially says that, unless the General Assembly has given you statute authority or if it’s in the constitution, you can’t do it," he said. "So you have to either pass legislation through the state or take some action that enables you to take whatever actions you need to have done.”
A Rockford financial task force recommended putting home rule back into place to address the city’s budget deficit without resorting to property tax hikes. Finance Director Carrie Eklund says the goal was to diversify the tax base.
“We have a large population that comes into the city on a day-to-day basis for work," she said. "Over 50 percent of our employed population in Rockford doesn’t live in Rockford.”
This also includes residents of suburbs such as Loves Park and Roscoe. Eklund says these individuals benefit from Rockford’s municipal services, but they don’t pay taxes as outsiders. This could have been remedied under home rule by measures such as hotel, gasoline, and video gaming taxes.
“The idea is that -- with not just those people that are commuting in on a daily basis but also increased efforts and successful efforts to build tourism here in the city -- would shift the burden for paying for those municipal services to people who are not property-tax payers here in the city.”
The March 20 ballot measure was spearheaded by Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara. He spoke to reporters after Tuesday’s defeat.
“I think our neighborhoods could be stronger; I think our reliance on property taxes could decrease with home rule, and we’ve stated that very clearly,” he said.
To attract support, McNamara and the City Council enacted provisions that would restrict their powers under home rule. These included strict property tax caps, a debt limit 20 percent lower than other home rule cities, and the ability for citizens to recall the mayor or aldermen if these provisions were violated. McNamara then reached out to residents through many public engagements.
“I attended over 70 different neighborhood meetings, organization meetings, professional organization meetings, public forums," he said. "We took a whole lot of questions from a tremendous amount of citizens, so I appreciate the citizens’ engagement -- those who voted against it and who voted for it.”
But that didn’t convince everyone. Groups such as Illinois REALTORS opposed these potential new taxes. Conor Brown is Government Affairs Director for Rockford Area Realtors, a local affiliate group. He disagreed with McNamara and Eklund’s views on diversifying revenue.
“Just simply adding more taxes in other ways -- whether it be sales tax, gasoline tax, food and beverage taxes, you name it -- that's not going to help the city of Rockford, and I think voters really honed in on that,” he said.
Brown says his group studied other Illinois home-rule cities such as Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, Waukegan and Springfield, and found that they didn’t use the revenue diversity to lower tax burdens.
“Historically, they have not been reducing property tax levies. They’ve been increasing them, and actually at a faster rate than the City of Rockford, to the city of Rockford’s credit. But these other cities have been adding other taxes and fees onto their residents.”
Another opposition leader was Brian Leggero, who had challenged McNamara in the 2017 mayoral election. McNamara, a Democrat, received 68 percent of the vote to Republican Leggero’s 13.6 percent. Leggero strongly criticized McNamara over the home rule ballot question.
“His first major action as mayor is to open this wound, this 30-year-old wound, and try and make a sales pitch to people to vote yes for home rule which would hae them lose their ability to vote on a few issues," he said.
Leggero said the City of Rockford was not living within its means and claimed home rule would not fully address tax concerns.
“They can lower the city’s portion of our property taxes, but the main burden on our property taxes is District 205. It’s over 52 percent of our property taxes, and home rule does absolutely nothing about that.”
District 205 is Rockford Public Schools. Changes to their property tax levy would require action from the school board.
Like McNamara, Leggero organized various educational sessions to discuss opposition to home rule. He didn’t host as many events as Mayor McNamara but is pleased with the results -- especially compared to 1983.
“I think the percentage was wider than last time, and they said no. ‘No home rule. We want to keep our voice and our vote on certain issues, and we’re tired of being taxed to death," he said.
But Walzer says this sentiment is misplaced.
“There’s some resistance to home rule because some people tend to think that it’s just about raising property taxes, but it’s more a question I think about managing the local economy, and in the case of Rockford, they’re probably in a situation where they really need to be able to influence economic trends.”
Regardless of sentiment, home rule is off the table, and City Finance Director Carrie Eklund says the city has an alternate budget plan.
“City Council already conditionally approved the implementation of a utility tax at a finance and personnel committee meeting," she said. "Plan B would be final approval of that utility tax and implementation of that.”
Eklund says the utility tax on ComEd and Nicor would be enough to cover this year’s deficit. But it’s a diminishing revenue source.
“Particularly, I think, in industrial and commercial settings here in Rockford, the consumption of energy is down -- which means that the revenue source that in 2008 we projected to be $12 million today is $8.5 million,” she said.
The shrinking revenue stream would force Rockford to rely on other sources.
“We’ve heard time and time again from the public that property taxes are too high, and Council has tried to be responsive to that by keeping that levy flat, she said. "It’s going to be more and more difficult doing so, moving forward.”
This hasn’t deterred Mayor McNamara’s plans for the city.
“We’ll continue to pass a budget on March 26," he said. "That budget, unfortunately, will have a utility tax. We will also be investing in public safety, getting back to all the things we talked about during my initial campaign for mayor.”
And he says home rule is by no means a dead issue.
“I 100 percent believe that home rule is the right way for the city of Rockford to reduce our reliance on property taxes and to strengthen our neighborhoods. I’m certainly not going to stop in that effort.”
Rockford’s utility tax will take three to four months to implement, and this year’s deficit will be covered by that revenue stream alone. But only time will tell what happens with property taxes, other revenue sources, and the future status of home rule.