Can Prospect Heights residents dissolve their own town?
What would you think if your suburb decided to voluntarily disappear, absorbed into one or more surrounding towns?
That's the idea a small group of residents is floating about Prospect Heights, a consolidation plan they're calling "The Initiative."
"Prospect Heights as you know it today will be no longer," explains Rodney Pace, mayor of Prospect Heights from 2003 to 2007 and one of the residents behind the proposal.
Prospect Heights is a unique suburb -- a bedroom community of 16,000 residents, many of whom have homes on lots larger than those in neighboring towns. There's no overall property tax or major retail shopping centers, and some entities -- such as Indian Trails Library and Chicago Executive Airport -- are already shared with other towns.
But Prospect Heights is independent and proud of it. Parts of it still get water from wells rather than Lake Michigan. Residents have rejected -- many times -- petitions to become a home-rule community, which, among other things, would permit city leaders to collect sales taxes -- and maybe even property taxes -- and develop a reliable stream of revenue with which to run the city.
Pace and another resident, Jim Wylie, say the lack of reliable revenue keeps the city in constant peril, but they also don't believe residents will ever agree to home rule. Not too many years ago, the police department and city hall were on reduced hours to the public because the city couldn't afford to keep them open.
The Initiative comes as Gov. Bruce Rauner and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti are urging the state to consolidate some of its thousands of governments to streamline services and cut costs. Depending on who is counting, there are anywhere from 5,700 to 7,000 taxing districts in Illinois, several thousand more than the next closest state.
Rauner was in Prospect Heights last month to celebrate a modest consolidation: absorption of the Old Town Sanitary District into Prospect Heights in 2015. The consolidation was largely painless and ensured that residents in the sanitary district still have workable sewers.
Comparatively, The Initiative is draconian. It calls for Prospect Heights to be broken up and merged into the bordering towns of Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Wheeling and Northbrook -- or, if all those towns don't get on board, to essentially merge Prospect Heights with just one neighbor, Wheeling.
The Initiative also calls for the Prospect Heights Fire District, the park district, Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 and the Prospect Heights Library to eventually consolidate with like agencies nearby, which they believe would result in larger, stronger and better-funded schools, parks libraries and fire services.
Details are deliberately sketchy, because Pace and Wylie don't want to be the "drum majors," as Wylie says, for The Initiative. They prefer to introduce the idea, and then let someone else, possibly from Rauner's administration, call the meetings and get all interested parties together, as well as solicit the needed research.
"This is in the very early stages," Pace said. "It's all just talking right now and trying to develop a game plan."
'Not going to happen'
One thing The Initiative doesn't have is the support of Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer, who is incredulous the idea of dissolving the city has even come up.
"It's absolutely not going to happen," he said.
"If someone wants to consolidate, they should consolidate with us so we can become an even larger Prospect Heights," Helmer said. "I'm sure people in the surrounding communities would love to have the half-acre lots and low taxes that we enjoy here in Prospect Heights."
He said the city has built back its reserves in the past five years to be in its strongest financial position in years.
Helmer, elected mayor in 2011, added that Pace and Wylie are not spokesmen for the city and have not met with him about this idea.
"Who vetted these guys to go out and start talking about soliciting the sale of Prospect Heights?" Helmer said. "I have no idea where they got their authority. This is just wasting people's time."
Theoretically, though, even without city leadership on board, a bill currently in the rules committee of the Illinois House would make it possible for residents to lead an effort to dissolve their own town or any other government.
The Citizens Empowerment Act, sponsored by state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills, would allow any governmental unit to be dissolved through a petition and referendum vote.
Petitions would need a number of signatures equal to or greater than 5 percent of the total votes cast in the last general election to get a referendum question on the ballot. The proposal would be on the ballot in both the government entity to be dissolved and the one absorbing it, and in both places would need to be approved by more than a three-fifths vote, McSweeney said.
The bill has support from Rauner's Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force, which presented its report in December. McSweeney said the bill's future will be determined when the house is back in session the week of April 4.
"This is designed for all levels of government and could include villages and cities," McSweeney said. "Right now the whole process is very difficult and we want to make it easier. I'm trying to put it in the hands of the people because if we just relied on those in charge it would never get done."
Not a new idea
Wylie and Pace say consolidating Prospect Heights with one or several neighbors isn't a new idea, just one that's been re-energized by Rauner's recent focus.
"This idea has been floated around for years, even before I was mayor," Pace said. "But, now that we have a governor who is pushing the idea, we're looking into it more seriously."
Pace agrees with Helmer that Prospect Heights is not in imminent danger of collapse, but he says that makes it a good time to knock on the doors of Arlington Heights and the others. Prospect Heights in its current economic upswing will look more attractive, he says.
Besides, the idea of consolidation is about the long-term, Pace said.
"Prospect Heights could survive without this, but it can't thrive," he said. "Is it best for the residents to just survive? Is it fair to people who spend their livelihoods in Prospect Heights to just survive?"
Wylie, who has lived in Prospect Heights for more than 40 years, said that without more taxing authority and retail development, he doesn't see a prosperous future for the city.
"The question is what is Prospect Heights going to look like going forward," he said.
"Do we gradually improve until we reach our limits, or do we join with larger towns that already have services that are developed and out there? It's pretty obvious to us that joining one or more municipalities would be the logical choice."
A few others are on board: Jim McLennan, a real estate professional in town; and Larry Reimers, retired CEO of Segerdahl Graphics. They acknowledge it will be an uphill battle and that the idea may get mixed reactions from residents, but organizers are hoping to get The Initiative off the ground by the end of Helmer's next term in 2019.
Even Helmer is a fan of government consolidation to an extent. He supported the Old Town Sanitary District consolidation in 2015, and says he'd get behind eliminating paper-only fire districts (those that collect taxes but don't run an actual fire department) and superfluous or outdated government entities, whenever possible.
"You have this whole plethora of small governmental agencies that have their own directors and staff," he said. "It is a waste of money."
Helmer also is interested in eliminating the post of Wheeling Township Highway Commissioner, whose job, he says, is to maintain only a few miles of Cook County-controlled streets in Prospect Heights.
The current highway commissioner, Scott Saewert, said it's not that simple. He says eliminating his position would leave residents in those unincorporated areas without necessary road drainage, repair, maintenance, flood mitigation and safety services.