News - McHenry County

Woodstock, Huntley expect to get home rule status after special censuses

5 McHenry County communities already have home rule taxing authority

Woodstock Councilman RB Thompson (back left) and Woodstock City Manager Roscoe Stelford attend to the agenda during a council meeting Tuesday in the City Council Chambers at City Hall.

The number of home rule municipalities in McHenry County could grow after the city of Woodstock and village of Huntley get the results of their special censuses certified.

In Illinois, communities can become home rule by referendum, or automatically when reaching a population of 25,000. The designation gives local government more control over anything from taxing to licensing to regulating the protection of the public health, according to the Constitution of the State of Illinois.

There are more than 200 home rule municipalities in Illinois, according to the Illinois Municipal League.

Home rule municipalities in McHenry County include Lake in the Hills, McHenry, Crystal Lake, Prairie Grove and Algonquin, according to documents from the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office and the Illinois Municipal League.

While advocates say home rule gives more power to the people who know the community best, the thought of a local body having more options to raise taxes without a referendum worries some residents and taxpayer advocacy groups.

Woodstock City Manager Roscoe Stelford said the special census will give a more accurate reflection of the city’s population, and more revenue because the city receives $151 in shared state revenue per person for the city.

When the city does qualify for home rule status, benefits could include the city’s ability to license landlords and create ordinances to require crime-free housing standards, increase the fees to license video game machines and improve the city’s bond rating, he said.

“Our council members are constantly in the community, constantly getting feedback on what’s good and what’s bad, and I think having local control is not a bad thing,” Stelford said.

Woodstock City Council members have emphasized at council meetings the city’s history of keeping taxes low for residents by not taking the property tax extension limitation law, a limitation that would not apply if the city became home rule.

Information about the special census and home rule status posted on the city of Woodstock’s website references a 2011 policy profile on home rule in the U.S. from the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University.

The study cited in the profile found that few communities across the U.S. use their home rule powers to increase property taxes or levy sales tax to the statutory limit for home rule cities.

The profile also said that, overall, the presence or absence of home rule had little effect on the government performance variables of most interest and concern to citizens.

Jim Tobin, president and founder of Taxpayers United of America, said the taxpayer advocacy group based out of Chicago is opposed to home rule in Illinois, because home rule status gives officials the power to raise taxes and avoid voter input.

“The people who like home rule are government employees, or people who plan to be government employees or get contracts with the city and profit off the taxpayers,” Tobin said.

He said that while residents can repeal home rule status, very few people have done it because it takes an “enormous amount of work and an enormous amount of money.”

City officials from both Woodstock and Huntley have said that if home rule status is reached, any discussions on what home rule powers the municipalities may take advantage of would be brought before the City Council or Village Board.

Huntley Village Manager Dave Johnson said in a statement the village has not yet discussed what home rule opportunities it might take advantage of, but, “Based on the continued unfortunate conditions surrounding the state of Illinois and the uncertainty created by these conditions, greater local control of the village’s future by the Village Board of Trustees is important.”

The city of McHenry conducted a special census in 2008, and it became a home rule municipality when that census was certified in 2010 with a population of 27,525, City Manager Derik Morefield said.

The only tax the city implemented after reaching home rule status was a 0.5 percent sales tax increase, from 7 percent to 7.5 percent, which went toward capital improvements and to help cover police pensions, Morefield said.

“My opinion is that the city of McHenry has been responsible in having their own home rule authority,” he said. “We haven’t certainly exercised it to the extent that we could.”

After being with the city for nearly four years, Morefield said discussions about adding more taxes or new ordinances with home rule powers do not come up with elected officials and staff.

Nadav Shoked, associate professor of law with Northwestern University, said becoming home rule is “not a complete revolution” for a municipality.

Shoked said it is important to note that even while under home rule, Illinois governments never have full autonomy from the state.

It’s tough to predict if taxes will go up when home rule status is reached, Shoked said, and whether people support home rule or not comes down to whether they trust their elected officials and neighbors who vote.

“These are debates between communities because people, for good reason or for no good reason, some people do not trust their elected officials,” Shoked said.