Two measures with opposite impacts on non-home-rule communities are currently making their way through the Illinois General Assembly.

House Bill 696, which would freeze property taxes for all non-home rule units of government, including municipalities of fewer than 25,000 people, all school districts, park districts, libraries and others — was passed by the Illinois House 71 to 31 (with five voting present) on April 21. 

The other would allow voters to decide on a constitutional amendment that would grant home rule status — and greater taxing authority — to River Forest, Forest Park and all other communities with populations of more than 5,000. 

The Illinois Municipal League (IML) is currently trying to get some momentum behind a joint House/Senate resolution seeking home rule status for municipalities with populations greater than 5,000. 

The resolution would need approval from three-fifths of state lawmakers to get the proposal on the November 2016 ballot. And then three-fifths of voters statewide would have to approve it for the change to take effect. 

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Smiddy (D-70th), of Hillsdale, has been stalled in the House Rules committee since May 2015. 

Repeated attempts to reach Brad Cole, executive director of the IML, were unsuccessful.

Presently, communities under 25,000 can get home rule status if voters approve a local referendum. River Forest and Forest Park overwhelmingly rejected measures years ago after hotly contested debates.  

But River Forest officials acted on April 27, voting 4-1 to send a letter to state Rep. Chris Welch (D-7th) and state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-4th) urging their support for the joint resolution. The letter-writing campaign is part of the Illinois Municipal League’s push to get the home rule resolution moving ahead.

The lone dissenter was Trustee Tom Cargie, who while noting that the letter made sense, wondered if his colleagues had forgotten how little support home rule had in River Forest. Nearly 80 percent of the voters cast ballots against it in November 2012. 

Trustees Susan Conti and Mike Gibbs, who were trustees when the board at that time unanimously endorsed the referendum, disagreed, as did Trustee Tom Dwyer. 

“The more people get to know how the village actually works, home rule would be awesome for us,” Dwyer said. 

Village President Catherine Adduci, a member of the Illinois Municipal League’s legislative committee, who also was a trustee in 2012, said that while the current measure might not come to a vote, she thought the IML “is doing the right thing by setting this up.”  

Home rule would allow communities more flexibility in areas of governance, including raising new revenue. 

River Forest Village Administrator Eric Palm said it would allow the village to set up its own police management structure. 

Forest Park Village Administrator Tim Gillian said his community could, among other things, inspect multifamily housing for violations. Multi-unit buildings make up 50 percent of the housing stock in his community. 

Gillian said Mayor Anthony Calderone is studying the measure and the letter; the board could soon vote on it.


Property tax freeze bill
now goes to Senate

HB 696, sponsored by state Rep. Jack Franks (D-63rd) of Woodstock, meanwhile, if it becomes law, would prevent taxing districts from even using the traditional Consumer Price Index increase allowed by the tax cap. 

The measure was approved earlier this month by the Illinois House by a vote of 71 to 31 with five, including Welch and Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) voting present. It still needs to be approved by the state Senate, where it is in committee. 

Welch said he walked away from his desk at the time the vote was taken and his seatmate didn’t record a “no” vote, which was the way Welch said he would have voted. 

He said he opposed Franks’ bill, especially as it focused on a permanent, not a temporary, tax freeze. Welch said mayors and school superintendents told him a permanent freeze would be devastating.

Rep. Camille Lilly (D-78th), whose district includes part of Oak Park, which is already home rule, voted for the bill.

HB 696 is now in the Senate Assignments Committee, where state Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th), the senate pro tempore and a member of the panel, said colleagues are carefully analyzing the bill before advancing it by deadline in early May. 

Welch and Harmon agree that there are technical problems with the bill, such as how it would affect tax levies that were already under way. There is also a failure to recognize outstanding bonds that needed to be paid and secured by promises related to the levy. 

Harmon said he did not want to create a wave of defaults on outstanding bonds. There also was some concern about the impact the law would have on tax levy extension referendums.

Frustration over property taxes may very well be the focus of the bill, Harmon said, but this legislation seems a bit heavy-handed. Harmon said the frustration is understandable, however, especially in a period when home values have gone down or stayed flat. 

“It highlights the counterintuitive nature … and the unfairness of property taxes, that they are not related to one’s ability to pay,” he said. 

That the bill only applies to non-home rule communities is unfair, Welch said.

A sister bill authored by Franks seeking a property tax freeze for home rule communities failed in the House. Ford voted against that bill, while Lilly didn’t cast a vote. Welch voted present.

“Illinois leads the nation in property taxes and we have to reverse that trend, but [those bills] were not the answer,” Welch said.