Groups form to campaign for and against home rule referendum

It comes down to trust.
 
Residents will vote in a March 20 referendum to decide whether or not Homewood should become a home rule community with additional powers, including the ability to increase taxes and fees and institute new ones and take on more debt than it currently can as a non-home rule community.

Village officials plan to use home rule authority to improve a rental housing inspection program, provide more flexibility in police and fire hiring and increase the sales tax rate and share those additional dollars with School Districts 153, 161 and 233, the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District and the Homewood Public Library that do not benefit from sales tax.

The state limits Homewood from undertaking these plans as a non-home rule village. Communities with populations of 25,000 or greater automatically have home rule. Homewood's population is just under 20,000, so the decision to become a home rule community must be voted on.
 
Home rule supporters say they would trust the current village government with the additional power and trust their neighbors to elect good stewards in the future. 
 
“Our track record so far is pretty good so I think that it’s a good bet that we can continue to trust them,” home rule supporter Brian Quirke said. “Homewood is a very special place. It is. There’s a lot of villages, towns that surround us that if I lived there I wouldn’t want to give the administration a lot more authority. But I look at the Homewood board and administration and I trust them.”
 
Opponents generally don’t question current officials but say they fear what a future village government may do.
 
“While I understand that the intent is well-meaning in regards to health and safety, the reality is a destructive and downward spiral,” Jennifer Sjoblom said. ”As a home rule community the village would have the ability to expand the budget through increased taxation. The funding always comes from the people. Right now, as a non-home rule community there is a true safeguard in regards to taxation.”
 
Sjoblom, a realtor, ran an unsuccessful campaign for village trustee in 2017. She serves as president of the Homewood Area Chamber of Commerce.
 
“I think very highly of Mayor (Richard) Hofeld and (Trustee) Anne Colton,” Mark Myers said. “Do I trust them to do the right thing? Sure. But the mayor’s 80 and I know how this goes. When the mayor goes, a whole new board comes in and takes over.”
 
In an effort to assuage the fears of home rule opponents, the Homewood Board of Trustees adopted a series of ordinances in December that would limit its powers if the referendum is approved.

The first keeps the property tax increases to whichever is less — the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or 5 percent. These are state established property tax caps that Homewood follows now.

The second limiting ordinance requires a seven-day notice to residents before any board vote on a tax increase and then a two-thirds majority vote of trustees is required, rather than a simple majority.

The third limits the amount of debt the village could incur to the same levels it holds to as a non-home rule municipality.
 
Some of those opposed to home rule question portions of those ordinances, believing they may allow the board a loophole. The village can exceed the current property tax cap “in a bona fide emergency” or “legal requirement.”
 
“The 'limits' the board put in place have no teeth,” said Debbie Hart, a home rule opponent. “I doubt the board could have gone further, been more specific or addressed other issues because that would defeat the purpose of home rule. Home rule is designed to transfer the power from the citizens to the board of trustees. No ordinance will change that fact.”
 
Homewood Village Attorney Christopher Cummings said the dictionary definition of “emergency” was applicable — an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.

“For example, if one or more fire trucks was destroyed and had to be replaced quickly, this might constitute an emergency. Likewise, if a key building or critical infrastructure were severely damaged, this also might constitute an emergency,” Cummings said in an email to the H-F Chronicle. “In both examples, if the village had insufficient financial resources to replace or repair these items promptly, the board would be justified in declaring this to be an ‘emergency.’”

Cummings said a legal requirement means an obligation, according to state or federal guidelines or through the courts, for which Homewood didn’t have sufficient funds. He cited the village opting to join the Thorn Creek Basin Sanitary District rather than making multi-million dollar upgrades to its own facilities required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Another example of a legal requirement would be the village’s obligation to fund employee pensions,” Cummings said. “The village’s contribution requirements and the rate pensions are paid to employees are mandated by state law.”
 
Gerald McManus, a home rule supporter, said the power-limiting ordinances show the board to be venturing into home rule in good faith.
 
“I can’t speak for every community. I only live in Homewood,” McManus said. “It’s been done cautiously and, I think, responsibly. They’re not asking for unlimited powers.”
 
Residents have formed loosely organized groups both for and against home rule, mostly on social media. A “Vote No Home Rule Homewood” Facebook page had 85 likes and 89 followers as of Jan. 13. A “Homewood Citizens for Home Rule” page had 95 likes and 103 followers. 
 
“The village does seem to have the advantage, having planned this for months and voting on the resolution right before the Christmas holiday. Also, early voting starts on March 5 so we really have very little time to get the word out,” Hart said. “I've talked to residents who don't even know that this issue will be on the ballot in March.”
 
Supporters believe home rule could benefit the community by helping to fund schools, removing the red tape of state control, making it easier to hire police and firefighters and take local control over things like rental inspections.
 
“We are handcuffed by so many regulations,” Tabitha Stine said. “We have to realize the situation we’re in. Springfield is not supporting us. We have to support ourselves, so giving more power back to our community is 100 percent what I’m for so that we can continue to be this great place that attracts young families like mine.” 
 
The board's intergovernmental agreements with school districts 153, 161, 233, the park district and the library calls for the distribution of revenue resulting from a 0.25 percent sales tax that would be imposed, should the home rule referendum pass.

School districts, park districts and libraries rely on property taxes. With the sales tax increase from 9 to 9.25 percent Homewood's rate would remain one of the lowest in Cook County. 
 
“It’s such a small increase,” Eileen Ward said. “I just feel like it benefits our community so much and those benefits will outweigh, to me, the teeny tiny tax increase. A lot of people come to Homewood to shop, so I think that we’ll also benefit from that sales (tax) revenue.” 
 
A home rule ordinance was rejected by Homewood voters in 2004, with about 69 percent (3,708 to 1,667) against it.

“The most important thing home rule supporters and those that are still undecided should understand is that once home rule is implemented it is very difficult to go back.  By the time things have gone wrong the damage has been done,” Sjoblom said. “By voting for home rule you are giving a small and transient board the unchecked power to decide how to spend your hard earned money through increased taxation without limitation. It is important to understand that regardless of how much you may like and trust the current board, they will not always be the people in those seats making the decisions on your behalf.”

Home rule status can be reversed by referendum. 
 

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