Local leaders weigh in on the pro's and con's of Home Rule in Ro - WREX.com – Rockford’s News Leader

Local leaders weigh in on the pro's and con's of Home Rule in Rockford

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With one month left until Rockford casts its vote, 13 News sat down with people who are for and against Home Rule, along with an expert on the topic.  We focused on some of the big issues, along with ones that might fly under the radar. 

First up in the discussion: Property Taxes. 

"I have very few tools at my disposal," says Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara.  "I can almost solely put the burden on people who live here.   
I want to reduce our property tax burden. I think it hurts our ability to attract new businesses and residents."

McNamara says with Home Rule, the city can diversify its revenue.  Meaning it can use other ways to bring in funds, like a city sales tax, increasing the fee businesses pay for video gaming machines, or finding a way to capitalize on the city's visitors. 

"If I have Home Rule  I can start charging for Hotel/Motel Tax. I can increase that tax by 1% and start bringing in that revenue to offset our general fund expenses that are offset primarily by property taxes."

But Winnebago County Finance Committee Chairman Ted Biondo says all those fees add up in the end, with taxpayers footing the bill. 

"But in every case the proponents say you do get diversified revenue stream, you sure do they use them all," says Biondo. "And that's the point.  I'm sorry but they use taxes to supplant deficits or pension plans."

13 News spoke with Northern Illinois University's Presidential Engagement Chair in the Department of Public Administration.  His areas of expertise include public budgeting, finance, and intergovernmental relations.

"Here in Illinois you are severely limited to the property tax as the only real revenue source that a city can us"And they're very strict limits on how you can raise that tax levy if you're not home rule.

Thurmaier says while  many people fear Home Rule increases property taxes, research doesn't reflect that. 

"The empirical evidence is just the opposite. When you have Home Rule you rely less on property tax, it doesn't increase.  You have authority to introduce other taxes.  Some people will say yes exactly, we don't want more taxes."

Thurmaier says this is evident in DeKalb.

"We actually have a lower property tax in DeKalb because we have home rule power, we can use home rule sales tax."  

He says students on NIU's campus, along with other visitors like a Jehovah's Witness conference help the city.  Those non permanent residents spend money which in turn is generating dollars to use for the city in its general fund. 

"So that you don't depend solely on the property tax levy  as a way to pay for the services you want."

Another big point in the home rule discussion is the shift in power. Meaning Rockford's mayor and aldermen, not state legislators would be in control when it comes to the city's rules. 

"We did not have the safe guards that we are putting into place now," says McNamara. 

McNamara say the city council has adopted self limiting ordinances.  These are controls on what the council can do with the power.  
He says it was something that wasn't available in 1983 when voters decided to strip the power away from the council, who some felt were abusing the tool. 
The ordinances include things like limiting the debt and property tax level, and public hearings before aldermen vote on tax changes. It'd also give citizens the power to recall aldermen or the mayor. 

"I'll be the second mayor in the history of Illinois to give citizens the ability to do that.

Biondo says while this is commendable, he believes there's nothing stopping future administrations from reversing these safeguards.

"And this group can enact and rescind what they've promised, some groups have done that or a new people come in and they can rescind it."

Biondo uses the example of Danville, who after more than 40 years of Home Rule, decided to increase property taxes by 10%. Something that wasn't in the plan years ago.  

"These cities had people with good intentions too, they're all using and abusing it."

He adds since Springfield still has authority over pensions, it leaves little for  Rockford to control.

"They say they'll be separated by destiny ,we can do our own destiny. When 85 or 86 percent of your budget is still controlled by the state how do you do that?"

Meanwhile Thurmaier says with Home Rule it's the aldermen and mayor who are accountable to voters, who hold the power every election cycle. 

"The democratic accountability is not in any way diminished by Home Rule, it is still the same whether you are Home Rule or not.  The voters still vote on who makes the policy decisions." 

Mayor McNamara says there's some parts of Home Rule that fly under the radar. The one that excites him is a Local Preference Ordinance.

"I get the best of both worlds, I get the the lowest bid but I also get  to keep those dollars here investing in our companies."

Right now the city is required to go with the lowest bid received when looking for work around town. With Home Rule, McNamara says he could use a local preference ordinance. If a local vendor's price isn't the lowest, the city gives them the opportunity to meet or beat that lowest bid.  If they do it, they get the work.  

"In 2017 we had nearly $5 million worth of work go out of the state. I'm sick of that. If I'm paying taxes I want those dollars invested in those  people who live and work here," says McNamara.

While Biondo agrees the local preference ordinance would be a great thing for a city, he says there's other hidden things. 

"It's not just the taxes, there's all kinds of behavioral controls and other kinds of controls.  Before a person could sell their house they can come and inspect your roof.  Well you can't sell this house because that roof hasn't been replaced for 20 years." 

So what will happen if the city turns down Home Rule?  Mayor McNamara says he doesn't believe council will be able to hold the line on property taxes any longer, and believes they'll eventually go up. He says there would also be a  new tax introduced. 

"More than likely we'll have to institute a utility tax, something I absolutely do not want to do. It hurts our low income and seniors the most. "

That tax would be on public service businesses, like transportation, energy and water. 

"Now we're being threatened if we don't pass Home Rule. they'll use the 5% utility tax, says Biondo.  "And then they say they don't want to do it because it's regressive. Well, think about it for a minute almost all taxes are regressive."  

But Biondo says compared to Home Rule, a utility tax wouldn't be the worst thing.

"The advantage of a utility tax is that it's limited to 5%, with HR they can use infinite numbers of increases."

Voters will ultimately get the last word when it comes to Home Rule's role in Rockford. Early voting begins February 21st. The primary takes place March 20th.  
 

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