Home-rule push in Barrington raises questions
If there were a morgue for failed suburban referendum requests, many of its drawers would be filled with home-rule measures.
Over the past 20 years, a large majority ballot measures seeking home rule for municipalities in the Daily Herald circulation area have failed. In one town alone, voters have rebuffed home-rule efforts at the polls three times since 2004.
Despite the seemingly long odds, Barrington leaders are considering a home-rule referendum on the November ballot.
Before Barrington residents answer whether they want home rule, many first will be asking themselves, "What is home rule, anyway?"
"The short explanation is that home rule gives a local government unit the power to deal with local problems without seeking the authority of the Illinois General Assembly to meet those needs," said Larry Frang, the executive director of the Illinois Municipal League and one of the foremost experts on home rule in the state.
The municipal league lobbies in Springfield on behalf of local governments and was involved in the process of drafting the home-rule section of the Illinois Constitution in 1970. Frang said the organization generally encourages communities to obtain home rule when possible.
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 through referendum.
Frang said a primary benefit of home rule is that it empowers communities to seek creative solutions to local problems, rather than relying on state lawmakers.
"I spend a lot of my time in Springfield trying to convince the General Assembly that they don't know what's best for the state's municipalities," he said.
According to a study by Northern Illinois University, between 1970 and 2000, there were 191 home-rule referendums. The results were almost evenly split: 97 requests passed and 94 failed. Four villages near Barrington -- South Barrington, Lake Barrington, Barrington Hills and Inverness -- adopted home rule during that time.
More recently, there have been a series of suburban home-rule failures, including three times in Prospect Heights and once each in Itasca, Villa Park, Lake Zurich, Burlington and Long Grove.
So what exactly would home rule mean for Barrington? We sought answers to some common questions.
Q: Will home rule raise my property taxes?
One of the biggest reasons voters reject home rule is their concern it gives their hometown more authority to raise property taxes.
While that is true, Frang said local elected officials are still held accountable for their actions by voters.
"If the council does raise taxes, citizens could vote those people out of office and get a new batch," he said.
When comparing home-rule municipalities to those without home rule, you won't find that property taxes are higher across the board, Frang said.
Barrington officials have maintained that the village's finances are in excellent condition and they have no need to increase the property tax.
Jason Hayden, the village's director of community and financial services, said if the village board decided to place a home-rule referendum question on the ballot, it also would pass an ordinance committing the village to comply with the property tax extension limitation law, commonly referred to as the "tax cap law."
Q: Will adopting home rule affect any other taxes or aspects of village finances?
A: Home-rule municipalities have more authority to develop alternative sources of revenue, such as a sales taxes or user fees.
Hayden said those alternate revenue streams usually shift the relative tax burden from property taxes to visitors who stay or shop in the community.
At a June meeting of village officials, Hayden said having home rule likely would raise the village's credit rating, which today stands at the second-highest rating available. Hayden said credit rating assessors like home rule because it allows villages to refinance outstanding debt at a significantly lower cost. It would also allow the village to more money at lower interest rates in the future.
It is possible for a community with home rule to have the highest credit rating, however. In January, Lake Zurich was granted the AAA rating by Standard & Poor's. Lake Zurich residents rejected home rule in 1998.
Q; What kinds of ordinances can home-rule villages adopt?
A: 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, Frang said. Municipalities without home rule are able to pass ordinances only on subjects where state statutes grant them power to do so.
"If you as a city council see a problem, you can't (if you lack home rule) simply pass an ordinance to deal with it," Frang said. "You have to search and see if the state has passed a law allowing you to pass an ordinance.
"In general, when you are looking for a creative solution to the problem, you are not going to find it in the General Assembly."
In Barrington's case, Frang said the village might be able to address freight train safety along the Canadian National Railway with home-rule powers.
Q: How are home-rule villages shielded from state action?
A: As a general rule, for a state law to affect a home-rule village, it must pass the General Assembly with a three-fifths vote, or supermajority. If that standard is not met, home-rule villages are able to modify or disregard the policy, and it will affect only communities without home rule.
"If you are a home-rule unit you have the ability to not be mandated as easily by the General Assembly," Frang said.
When a village adopts home rule, suddenly some of the state statutes having to do with important village issues like zoning do not apply anymore. One issue Barrington officials have singled out as something to pursue should home rule be adopted is a crime-free housing ordinance similar to those in nearby communities. Crime-free housing ordinances require landlords to obtain a valid residential rental license, allow the village to conduct a crime prevention inspection, attend crime safety training programs and conduct background checks on prospective tenants.