As Rockford votes tomorrow, proponents and opponents of home rule alike are pulling out all the stops to get their message across. Unfortunately, it appears that one side specifically, the anti-home rule side, has been spreading misinformation like wildfire on social media—fear-mongering and confusing voters. It’s one thing to have real concerns over such a transformative proposal, but it’s an entirely separate thing to actively tell falsehoods. Because of this, this article will try and wade through the misinformation and debunk many of the arguments anti-home rulers have stated over the past few months.
Their argument: Home rule will raise property taxes
Home rule will not raise property taxes.
On the contrary, home rule is one of the only ways the City has left to not raise property taxes. Both sides of the debate should readily admit that taxes will go up with or without home rule—the question is, on whom? And, what taxes?
With home rule, non-residents (i.e. those who live in Loves Park, Machesney Park, etc.) and visitors (i.e. those thousands of people a year who come play in sporting tournaments here) will finally pay for their usage of our services and amenities via taxes and fees that either include or target these populations specifically, such as a hotel/motel tax or sales tax. Currently, without home rule, Rockfordians subsidize those in Loves Park and Machesney Park as well as our visitors who come to Rockford.
No other city our size in the state subsidizes their suburbs like we do.
Those against home rule would have you believe that your taxes will be lower without home rule. However, this is not true. Unfortunately, taxes on Rockfordians alone will be higher without home rule because the City still needs to raise taxes and the state will not allow the City to prioritize taxes that are paid for by non-residents and visitors—so, without home rule, the City must raise taxes on Rockfordians alone, and can do so (to a point) without voter approval.
Additionally, we also know that home rule cities are less reliant on property taxes because we have empirical evidence proving this to be true. Northern Illinois University's Department of Public Administration Professor Kurt Thurmaier studies home rule, and notes that home ruled cities have lower property taxes than non-home rule cities (Click here to read more).
We need home rule in order to not raise property taxes.
Their argument: Home ruled cities across the state have raised their property taxes tremendously over the last ten or twelve years
This argument comes from one specific graph (seen below), a graph provided to home rule opponents by none other than a state senator. Now, before I go into the issues with this graph, just know that home rule would transfer power to local rather than state officials, so in essence this senator would lose some power if home rule passes.
At first glance, this graph looks terrifying. “Taxes have gone up so much for home ruled cities over the past 12 years! Home rule is out of control!”
Except, this graph doesn’t say that. This graph doesn’t say much of anything at all, actually. What it does say is that, yes, property taxes have gone up across the state and similarly sized home ruled cities have had larger percentage increases than Rockford (kind of like how an increase of 1 to 2 is 100%, but an increase of 20 to 21 is 5%). What it fails to show—and is the most important part—is the actual property tax levies for each city.
It doesn’t provide that information because you would quickly realize that every single city listed here with seemingly-exorbitant property tax increases still has a lower property tax than Rockford.
Here is a list of property tax rates of some of the communities in the graph above as well as some that have continuously been cited. Only Rockford lacks home rule in this list:
East Dundee .6129 Elgin 2.239 Aurora 2.096 Peoria 1.121 Springfield .9385 Belleville 2.181 Waukegan 2.848 Evanston 1.536 Joliet 1.304 Danville 2.043 Normal .9589 Decatur 1.651
Their argument: The state caps taxes on non-home rule communities. If we have home rule, those caps are gone.
While technically true, the state does cap property taxes and utility taxes, these caps are either set so high that Rockford has yet to hit them, or the City has actively chosen not to burden Rockfordians with yet another tax that rests solely on their shoulders. Also, the City approved self-imposed restrictions to their own home rule powers that keep these caps in place if voters approve home rule.
If home rule fails, however, Rockford will be forced to create a utility tax, and—to the anti-home-ruler’s point—it will hit the tax limit set by the state for utility taxes. That doesn’t mean taxes won’t continue to go up once this limit has been reached. It just means it can’t come from utilities once the cap has been reached, but can and will most likely come from property taxes next (another tax only paid for by Rockfordians).
Also, these "tax caps" haven't done a good job at stopping Rockford from having some of the highest property taxes in the nation, while ironically non-capped home rule cities have lower property taxes.
Their argument: City Council can easily take away the restrictions it imposed on itself in the future
While again technically true, the likelihood of this happening is minimal. That might not be a sigh of relief, but just hear this out. The likelihood of these restrictions being removed is so low because it’s political suicide for current and future aldermen and mayors to do that given the ramifications.
The second that aldermen touch home rule restrictions, they open themselves up to being recalled (a power that they cannot vote away once in place). Not to mention, any restriction changes or specific home rule tax discussions require a super-majority vote, which is not easy to get particularly in a moderate community like Rockford.
Those against home rule tend to speak in drastic hypotheticals rather than realistic implications.
Their argument: The City needs to cut costs before trying to raise more revenue
The City has actually cut millions of dollars in its budge already, but there comes a point where you just cannot cut more—either legally or socially.
The City's two largest and most expensive departments are the police and fire departments; two departments that are deeply needed in Rockford's current battles with crime and addiction. However, after this year's cuts and possibly next year's, these two departments will start facing deep cuts to balance the budget.
Contrary to what opponents say, home rule can actually help the City balance its budget not through raising taxes, but through using the funds it already collects.
The State restricts how Rockford spends its money. Money collected through hotel/motel tax can only go toward economic development, for example. That $12 million city-paid downtown conference center everyone was all up in arms over? Saying that money should go toward fighting crime? It was illegal for the City to spend that money on anything other than projects like that because the State does not allow non-home rule cities to do so.
If you think the City should focus more of its existing funding on fighting crime, then you need to vote yes for home rule.
Their argument: Home rule takes the power away from the voter
This argument discusses one of the key benefits people find about lacking home rule: the ability to vote in one’s taxes or not.
While on the face of it, this seems like a major benefit to lacking home rule. However, referendums are a primary reason why property taxes are so high in the first place, and they don't actually stop tax increases.
There are many benefits to referendum. The community and Council get to hear how the majority of the population feels about a particular issue, they provide the Council or the opposition with a mandate, people feel like their voices have been heard, etc.
But there are also many issues with referendum; particularly referendum on taxes.
The majority does not always make the right decision for the community at large. The larger the population is, the easier it is for misinformation to flow and sway the vote. They are an incredible amount of work, are expensive in and of themselves, and rarely end with higher taxes due to the nature of that beast.
Now, being able to vote to not have higher taxes is a plus for some, but many do not realize that saying no to one tax just means that the burden is shifted to an existing tax. The City can and sometimes is forced to raise property taxes to keep up with costs, and they can do this because property and utility tax increases do not require voter approval under state law.
Also, no one wants higher taxes just for the sake of higher taxes. Don't forget that your alderman and mayor are you neighbors. They face the same positive and negative Council decisions as you, so if they raise taxes they're also raising taxes on themselves. We've elected them to represent us; we must let them do just that.
At the end of the day, Rockford needs solutions. The opposition to home rule has not provided a playbook for how they wish to move the city forward—opting to stay the course; a course that has led Rockford to a lower credit rating, higher property taxes, and more blight.
Vote yes for home rule tomorrow. Vote yes for Rockford.