Homewood meeting spells out home rule proposal

  Village Manager Jim Marino, right, speaks to the 
  audience Thursday, Nov. 9, at an informational
  meeting about home rule that was held at Marie 
  Irwin Community Center.
(Photo by Quincy 
  Crump/H-F Chronicle)
 

The first informational meeting on home rule for Homewood drew an estimated 80 people anxious to learn why trustees are proposing a change in the village government's status.

More than a dozen people asked questions during the meeting Nov. 9 at the Marie Irwin Community Center. The audience learned what home rule would mean for the village, for property owners and for tax payers if  a proposed ballot measure is approved by voters in March.

The board of trustees is expected to vote at its Dec. 12 regular meeting whether to place the issue on the ballot. Because Homewood's population is fewer than 25,000, a  change to home rule must be approved by voters.

Village Manager Jim Marino presented three community problems that home rule would help the village address: increasing numbers of poorly maintained rental properties, time-consuming and expensive police and fire department hiring requirements and sagging revenue for local schools, and park and library districts.

“We’re here to listen to your feedback,” Marino said. “The board wants to hear what the community has to say.”

Code enforcement
After the presentation, the first question came from Homewood resident Jim Jacobs, who wanted to know whether the property inspection program would affect owner-occupied dwellings.

Bob Grabowski, Homewood Fire Chief and building department manager, said the inspection program would apply only to single-family rental houses. He noted that following the 2008 recession, an increase in foreclosures in the area resulted in a number of homes being converted to rentals. Rentals often are not cared for as well as owner-occupied homes, he said.

Of the 350 to 400 single family rental homes in the village, 25 percent were cited last year for code violations, he said. Of the more than 4,000 owner-occupied homes, about 5 percent were cited.

Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld said property maintenance has been a growing concern among residents.
“Every Saturday morning when I sit down at village hall I get at least one concern from a neighbor about the house next door to them and how it’s impacting their property values,” he said.

Following the meeting, Jacobs said he was reassured by the response to his question.

“I’m here because I voted against it last time,” he said, referring to a 2004 ballot issue that was resoundingly defeated. “I’m here because I’m concerned that they were going to do private property, personal residences, that kind of control.”

He said the plan to increase code enforcement of rental properties is a good idea.

“People are worried that big government will come in and inspect their homes,” he said. “If the village wants to sell this, they have to find a way to convince them that it’s not going to infringe on their right to sell property.”

Police and fire hiring
The police and fire department hiring issue also received a number of questions from residents.

Grabowski and Police Chief Bill Alcott explained how current hiring practices dictated by the state put strain on their staffs and on the village budget.

Alcott said the village currently has to select from a list of qualified candidates. Each candidate has to attend a 14-week training academy followed by 15 weeks of field training. The village pays about $40,000 in salary before the recruit can get to work.

He noted there are not always open spots in area police academies for new recruits, which causes further delays in getting new officers on the street. Current staff has to put in overtime until new officers are ready.

Homewood has hired 13 new officers since 2013 due to attrition, he said.

Lateral hiring, which the village could do under home rule, would not mean ignoring the candidate list, he said, but it would allow the village to hire experienced police officers who would not have to attend the academy.

The same principle applies to the fire department. Grabowski said it takes two years to be trained as a paramedic and six months as a firefighter.
One resident said the police department appears to be running very well, and he wondered whether the changes proposed under home rule might change that.
Alcott said Homewood police jobs are much sought-after and the village would continue to attract good candidates.
“You’re not going to change the quality of the people,” he said. “The problem is we can’t get them here fast enough when we’re down a lot of people.”

Sales tax increase
A new Homewood resident, Gianni Sansone, asked whether the revenue estimate from the proposed sales tax hike had taken into account the potential for lost sales if shoppers opted to go elsewhere as a result.

Marino said sales loss hadn’t been taken into account. He indicated the estimate might be low because it is based on 2016 sales tax revenue, before the new Walmart and expanded Menards stores had been in operation a full year.

He also noted that even with the increase, Homewood’s sales tax rate would remain one of the lowest in the area. 

Anita Cheers, a 35-year Homewood resident, asked whether the ebbs and flows of business might affect future sales tax rates.

“If Target closes or Walmart closes and we’re home rule, will you say, ‘We’ve got to go up another fourth of a percent?” she said. “And will you come to us to ask, or will you just automatically go up and up and up. That part about there being no cap concerns me a little bit.”

Marino said loss of revenue from one store wouldn’t be a cause for another sales tax hike.

He also noted that some limitations on the village’s authority can be addressed when home rule is implemented.

Kristen Salkas, another new Homewood resident, said she came to the meeting without a strong position pro or con and left without having made a decision, but she said the session was useful.

“I came in saying, ‘Let’s hear more about this,’” she said. “It didn’t change my mind, but it made me more informed.”


Disclosure: The reporter's spouse, Amy Crump, is the director of the Homewood Public Library, which would receive additional funding if home rule is approved and the planned sales tax hike is implemented.

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