Editorial: Batavia anti-home rule drive puts focus on tensions, importance of elections

The 1970 Illinois Constitution was drafted with a home-rule provision that automatically gives municipalities with at least 25,000 people greater powers of self governance.

A home-rule community "may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt."

The home-rule provision was meant to give each municipality of sufficient size the ability to do what it feels is best for its residents, given its unique factors. But it also makes it much easier for municipal leaders to set and raise taxes and much harder for citizens groups to fight tax increases they don't like. That tension is at the center of a move in Batavia led by a local activist group pushing for a referendum April 4 to strip the city's home rule status.

Batavians for Responsible Government is led by Sylvia Keppel, who is worried about plans to borrow as much as $14 million to finance work related to construction of apartment and commercial space downtown. She contends all Batavians could be on the hook for the project's bill if a planned funding source doesn't pan out.

Should this petition effort survive any challenges and make it to the ballot, Batavians will have a big decision to make: continue as they have, letting local elected leaders make key decisions about funding government or subject the city to the same collar-county tax cap limitations under which the school, park and library districts must live while giving up other freedoms.

It is rare for a community to shed home rule powers once it's attained them. Since 1999, there have been four referendums in Illinois seeking to cede a town's home-rule authority. Three attempts failed, most recently in Downers Grove in 2006.

For our part, we take no position on the Batavia measure at this point. That's a matter that will require examination of Batavia's particular circumstances as - and if - the referendum campaign proceeds. But we do believe it's important for local citizens - in Batavia and any other home rule community - to reflect carefully on all factors involved in the status.

The real estate industry lobbies against home rule in many communities largely because the status enables municipalities to establish real estate transfer fees, which make homes more expensive. But the designation is not all about the ability to raise taxes.

It gives municipalities the flexibility to create special financing deals and zoning to draw economic growth; it allows municipalities to find ways to address underfunded public pensions at a time when the state is on very rocky ground.

And, yes, it gives local elected leaders greater leeway to raise taxes if they see fit. Many of those leaders, it's worth noting, will also be determined on April 4. As residents ponder the merits and dangers of home rule authority, they also should be taking a hard look at the individuals they will elect who would wield it.

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