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Illinois Towns Want More Independence From State

Illinois statehouse with storm clouds in the background
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois
Illinois statehouse

As Illinois attempts to balance its books, it’s dipping into pots of money meant to help cities and towns pay for services. And local officials are looking for options.

One idea is to make it easier for smaller cities to gain home-rule status, which allows those towns to have more flexibility in how they operate. 

Home rule governments can borrow more money for big road projects, set more zoning rules and institute sales and gas taxes.

To get home-rule status, a town has to have at least 25,000 people or the town’s voters have to agree on it in a referendum. The Illinois Municipal League wants to lower the threshold to 5,000 people. It’s proposing a change to the state’s Constitution, a move that requires a three-fifths majority vote in the General Assembly to get the question on the November ballot statewide.

Brad Cole, the league’s executive director, says the change will give towns more freedom.

“We see more and more state mandates, federal mandates, and fewer and fewer opportunities for local authorities to determine how to address those mandates,” he said a recent news conference in Springfield.

Under the proposal, 169 more communities would be added, nearly doubling the number of home-rule cities in the state.

That would include smaller communities such as Poplar Grove, where Owen Costanza is the mayor. The town of 5,200 people sits north east of Rockford. Costanza says gaining home-rule status would help them enforce some rules, such as parking restrictions, people driving ATVs in neighbors’ yards and campfires.

For Costanza and other supporters, it’s about local control. But some see other motivations.

“There is the opportunity for a never-ending cycle of property tax increases - without any direct say by voters,” said Jon Broadbooks, spokesman for the Illinois Realtors. “A lot of communities end up creating a much (costlier) environment for the people who live and work there.”

The group has been fighting home-rule referendums across the state. Broadbooks says the threshold should be left where it is, and towns should have to go to their residents directly if they want to increase property taxes, like they have to now.

On the other hand, lowering property taxes is an argument Jeff Eder made recently in favor of home-rule. Eder is the city administrator for East Peoria, adjacent to Peoria and home to some Caterpillar plants. In the last 10 years, the city has seen growth in its commercial district.

“We've got a Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s (and) Bass Pro, plus a whole host of restaurants and smaller retailers,” Eder said. “We've transformed an old industrial area, a lot of it being old Caterpillar properties, into commercial.”

With a population of around 22,000, the city is just a few thousand short of gaining home-rule status.

Falling sales tax and casino revenue on top of rising pension costs has put the city in a bind, Eder said. And it doesn’t have the money to pay for things like road or sewer improvements.

“We're not putting money back into infrastructure, (the) most noticeable is roads,” he said.

Eder argues home-rule status would give them more options to spread the tax burden beyond their citizens.

“(In) a community like ours, where have a lot people from many communities coming in and using our facilities, (it) spreads that burden of payment around to everybody versus just hitting our residents through a property tax increase,” he said.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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