Fourth time's the charm?
That's what some Prospect Heights elected officials are hoping as they again stoke talks of becoming a home-rule municipality.
The city went to voters for permission to gain home rule status in 2004, 2008 and 2012, each time failing largely because residents feared that it could lead to higher property taxes. Now, however, proponents are optimistic that the upward trend in support during the last three referendums and an aggressive education campaign could finally flip the outcome.
On Monday, City Treasurer Rich Tibbits told city council members he's willing to form a committee to educate residents about home rule authority, in advance of putting a referendum on the ballot in November or April 2019.
"I think it's a No. 1 issue for us to solve one of these days," Tibbits said. "It's been a long time coming, that's for sure."
Under state law, any community with 25,000 or fewer residents is not automatically home-rule municipality. Without this classification, the city has limited authority on issues such as zoning, sanitation, nuisance abatement and some criminal offenses. More notably, it's limited in controlling its finances.
This is where opponents get worried about granting home rule authority. As a city without home rule authority, Prospect Heights cannot impose a general property tax (though it's allowed to -- and does -- have a property tax specifically for paying police pension costs). Approving home rule authority doesn't automatically result in property taxes, but it is a necessary step.
"When I talk to people in Prospect Heights about home rule, it's probably the first association, but they're missing the complete picture," City Administrator Joe Wade said. "I think by not being a home rule community, we're probably penalizing ourselves."
Here's what Wade means. Apart from the potential for property tax revenue, Wade estimates that Prospect Heights misses out on an estimated $750,000 for paving streets, improving drainage, hiring more police officers and a list of other services. A vast majority of that money is hotel tax revenues the city must return to hotels and motels to be use solely for tourism-related projects. Other lost revenues include a strict cap on the cost for video gaming licenses.
Alderman Patrick Ludvigsen put it more bluntly.
"Put a million dollars in the middle of this floor here and burn it, because that's what we're doing by not being home rule," he said.
There is reason for supporters to be optimistic. While only 33 percent of voters supported the referendum in 2004, nearly 46 percent supported it in 2012.
Though most city officials seemed supportive about the concept of putting the home rule question on a ballot, they differed on the timing. Tibbits advocated for the November election while others said they needed more time to educate residents on the issue.
"I don't necessarily think there is a rush to get it done," Alderman Scott Williamson said. "However, if we're going to do it, if we're going to try and educate, we should really lay that foundation and start charging."