Voters may have option to approve ‘Home Rule’ option for county

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CHAMPAIGN COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — If some Champaign County Democrats have their way — and voters cast their ballots in agreement — Champaign could join Cook County in adopting a home rule form of government.

Currently, Cook is the only county in Illinois to have opted-in to operating in that form of government, although the Illinois Municipal League reports 217 municipalities — including Springfield — currently maintain that status.

By definition in the state’s constitution, a home rule form of government allows Illinois municipalities or counties to “exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt” without statutory authority.

Or, as Champaign County board member Stephanie Seawell Fortado described in a May 31 virtual town hall led by her and member-elect Emily Rodriguez, home rule “gives local bodies of government more flexibility in how they govern… and coming up with local solutions for local problems.”

“Now that doesn’t mean we could just go out and do like a real specific and sort of classic example… (like) all of a sudden just change the drinking age in Illinois… because that area has been preempted by the state,” she said. “…But what we would need to do is we would approach…ideas as if they were pieces of local legislation.”

Home rule also allows municipalities the ability to create new streams of revenue, which can be done via taxes, although Rodriguez emphasized that’s not impetuous driving the home rule discussion among some local Democrats.

“If we have home rule, we can lift restrictions on how we choose to invest the tax dollars that we already have — we wouldn’t need to push things through a referendum every single time,” she said during the town hall, adding that home rule “…allows us to tax in a non-draconian fashion. We wouldn’t be limited to that blunt instrument of property taxes. Instead, we could set a new revenue stream — an innocuous example would be plastic bags, other areas have implemented a plastic bag tax — five cents, two cents, et cetera, so an easy way to raise funds isn’t going to kneecap businesses.”

Champaign County GOP chair Dee Dee Shonkwiler said Monday that the Village of Savoy — where he’s currently a trustee — looked into adopting home rule, but didn’t qualify due to a constitutional provision that only allowed municipalities with a population of 25,000 or more to do so.

“All it’s really doing — I know they say, ‘Well you know it’s not just a revenue stream to increase taxes’ — but essentially, that’s what could be,” he said. “And I don’t think we ought to be placing that burden on our taxpayers’ backs.”

The IML notes that “the ability to acquire and manage revenue and to address the economic development needs of a community are compelling benefits of home rule,” tacking on the fact that the specific “benefits of home rule are relative because what may be helpful or necessary for one municipality may not be helpful or necessary for another.”

“The ability to address the relative needs or concerns of municipalities is, in and of itself, a benefit of home rule,” according to the IML.

Social needs discussed Champaign County run the gamut from talks about recidivism, lowering the number of people sent to jail and breaking a high poverty rate, among others, Rodriguez said, adding that those talks could potentially stop being so “circular” were the county to adopt home rule.

“As we talk in circles about defending that bare minimum, we are evading conversations that could be an actual step forward — other counties have, across our nation, have opted on their own to end cash bail,” she said. “We can do that on our own, we can expand pretrial services on our own. And you can even shore up our reentry programs, even more on our own, all these things, you can use to fulfill these commitments that were in the conversation that we began with (the county’s Racial Justice) Task Force and finally make good on some of those problems.”

Rodriguez also said Monday that Champaign County is projected to fall 20-30 percent short of previous revenue projections for fiscal year 2020 — or about $2 million — due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s one reason driving the home rule proposal, she said, since it allows the county to consider more options for gathering revenue.

“We’re trying to make an argument to the (Democratic) party that this is something we need now,” she said. “We’re ringing the alarm bell about the hard budget decisions we’ll have to make in the next two years. …Our funding is already down to the bone; we don’t have any wiggle room.”

Shonkwiler said he didn’t find the argument compelling enough to justify home rule’s implementation, arguing that the county board could “probably tighten up their belt a little bit somewhere.”

Should a petition to implement home rule in Champaign County garner 500 signatures, Rodriguez said that voters in November will then be allowed make the decision on whether or not the county will opt-in to home rule. The deadline to get the home rule question on the ballot is August 3.

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