Taxes, home rule, size of government on ballot for suburban Cook Co. voters

America's system of government by the people usually works by electing representatives to make the actual decisions.

But sometimes voters have the opportunity through referendums to weigh in directly, in either a binding or advisory capacity.

Residents of Northwest suburban Cook County will have several opportunities to do just that on the Nov. 4 ballot.

These suburban questions run the gamut from financial to administrative, including a tax hike for fire services, giving local municipalities greater authority and reducing the size of a couple of government boards.

Cook County weighs in on guns, health

The Cook County Board this summer placed two advisory referendums on the November ballot, intended to provide voter input for the Illinois General Assembly to consider.

The first asks whether the state House should approve Senate Bill 3659, which would require universal background checks for firearm transfers and prohibit the sale and transfer of assault weapons, assault weapon attachments and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

According to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's blog, current state and national law requires background checks only when licensed dealers sell firearms - accounting for only about 60 percent of gun sales. She said studies have shown universal background checks significantly reduce the number of illegal gun sales.

The second countywide referendum concerns mental health funding in the state. The measure is less specific in its direction, asking simply if the General Assembly should "appropriate additional funds to provide necessary mental health services."

According to Preckwinkle's blog, the referendum question is a response to the impact state funding cuts have had on local mental health services.

Palatine Rural Fire seeks tax hike

The Palatine Rural Fire Protection District will again seek voter approval to increase property taxes after the same measure narrowly failed in March.

Just like that referendum, the district is pursuing a 0.05 percent tax hike expected to raise about $200,000 to pay for operations. Chief Hank Clemmensen say he's optimistic more voters will support the proposal after low turnout in the spring.

"The need is still there," he said.

Faced with declining property tax revenue, the one-station district continues to operate in the red. The assessed value of properties in the district plummeted 35 percent in the past five years, the chief said.

As officials try to diversify revenue sources, one option still on the table is selling space on the sides of fire trucks and ambulances for ads, though Clemmensen said he'd be happy if that pulled in $1,000 a month.

"It's a balancing act," Clemmensen said. "We have to be able to provide the best service we can for the money we receive."

If the measure fails, the district would hold off on filling two firefighter positions vacated by retirements.

If the measure passes, a property owner would pay about $50 more in taxes for every $100,000 in equalized assessed value.

The district covers 17 square miles, including parts of Inverness and unincorporated Palatine Township.

Des Plaines/Maine Twp. electric issue

Voters in Des Plaines and unincorporated Maine Township will be asked if they want their elected leaders to explore getting an alternative electricity supplier that could offer cheaper rates than ComEd.

If voters say "yes," Des Plaines aldermen and Maine Township trustees can decide whether to stick with ComEd or find a new supplier. But if voters say "no," the option is off the table.

A number of municipalities have pursued electric aggregation since 2011 after the state legislature approved rules allowing local governments to do so.

If voters approve the referendum and the elected boards find an alternative supplier, residents would be allowed to opt out of the program.

Des Plaines 4th ward Alderman Dick Sayad proposed the city put the question on the ballot to see if it's possible to get lower rates.

"The intent is to find out what's the best product for the city and the residents," Sayad said at a council meeting last month.

Barrington wants power of home rule

The Barrington board of trustees unanimously voted last month to pose the question of whether the village should adopt home-rule status. Village officials have said home rule would allow them to better deal with local problems such as crime-free housing.

Home-rule referendums have not been popular with suburban voters in recent years, due to concern that village governments would use the power to create new taxes and increase existing ones.

Barrington officials have maintained that their finances are in excellent order and they have no need to increase taxes. In August, the board passed an ordinance that said if home rule were approved by the voters, the board wouldn't be allowed to raise property taxes above the state's cap for non-home-rule villages.

The extra powers that come with home rule are automatic to all municipalities with a population of more than 25,000. Smaller communities such as Barrington - population 10,327 - may adopt home rule only by referendum. Four villages near Barrington - South Barrington, Lake Barrington, Barrington Hills and Inverness - have done so.

Perhaps the biggest difference between communities with and without home rule is the amount of autonomy they have to pass ordinances. Home-rule towns are able to pass an ordinance on nearly any subject, so long as it pertains to the community. Municipalities without home rule are able to pass ordinances only on subjects in which state statutes already grant them power to do so. ‚Äč

Prospect Heights clerk, treasurer

Prospect Heights voters will decide if two elected positions - the city clerk and treasurer - should be eliminated. If the two binding referendum questions are approved, the mayor, with the advice and approval of city council, would appoint a clerk and treasurer instead.

Mayor Nick Helmer said the assistant city clerk and finance director - both of which are staff positions - already do much of the work assigned to the two elected officials. He said the move could save money if the voters decide to eliminate the elected positions and the city decides they don't need to hire anyone to help do the work. Starting in April 2015, each elected official in Prospect Heights will receive $250 per month, Helmer said.

Opponents have said that eliminating the elected positions gets rid of additional, independent pairs of eyes on city documents and finances that could provide necessary checks and balances to the system.

Elk Grove Rural Fire Board membership

Voters in the Elk Grove Rural Fire Protection District - a one-square-mile area of unincorporated Elk Grove Township primarily comprised of mobile home parks - will decide whether the size of the district's board of trustees should be reduced from seven members to five.

A similar ballot question in the April 2013 election failed by a 14-12 vote.

Inverness Park District board size

The Inverness Park District, like the Elk Grove Rural Fire Protection District, is asking whether the number of commissioners on its board should be reduced from seven to five.

Co-Director Nancy DiGioia said it's been difficult for years to find seven members to serve, and the board is operating with only five active members and two official vacancies currently.

The referendum seeks to do away with those vacancies by permanently reducing the size of the board, DiGioia said.

Daily Herald staff writers Katlyn Smith, Christopher Placek, Doug T. Graham and Melissa Silverberg contributed to this report.

Voters in Des Plaines and unincorporated Maine Township will be asked if they want their elected leaders to explore getting an alternative electricity supplier that could offer cheaper rates than ComEd. Associated Press
  The Barrington village board unanimously voted last month to pose the question of whether the village should adopt home-rule status, increasing the power of the board. Mark Welsh/
Cook County is asking voters whether the state should require universal background checks for firearm transfers and prohibit the sale and transfer of assault weapons. These weapons were displayed at the Chicago FBI offices after federal and local authorities arrested 23 people on gun and drug charges in 2010. Associated Press
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