By RORYE O’CONNOR
MT. VERNON —
Home Rule in the city of Mt. Vernon is up for repeal with a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The ballot states: “Should the people of Mt. Vernon, IL return the power to raise local taxes only by a vote from the people approving said tax, stopping the City Council from raising taxes through their sole power of Home Rule without your vote? If so vote Yes to Revoke Home Rule powers from the City of Mt. Vernon, in the County of Jefferson, State of Illinois, 62864.”
Steven Casper, a Mt. Vernon resident, collected more than 1,000 signatures in order to have the referendum placed on the ballot, he said.
Casper said he was upset by the city raising sales tax by half a cent in 2011, and the raising of four taxes the year before that.
“I found out they’d raised property taxes a large percentage before I owned my home,” he said. They have raised several taxes without coming to the voters. I said, they’re just going to continue to do this.”
Casper said he believes voters ought to have a say in taxation.
“It’s a democracy issue,” he said. “It’s just a downhill slide.... It’s something that shouldn’t be going on. We should be able to address taxation at a local level. I hope the citizens of Mt. Vernon will see that and decide to take back their rights.”
He said other towns without Home Rule prosper, and that he believes Mt. Vernon will be better off without it.
“If the city wants to keep Home Rule and it gets voted down, they should pass some legislation and create ordinances that allow citizens to vote on these taxes,” he said. “... If the city would change the rules, we wouldn’t have a problem. They should come back to the voters with a better form of Home Rule.”
Donte Moore, co-chair of the Keep Home Rule — Vote No! Committee, said he became a part of the effort to keep the way of governing in Mt. Vernon because he believes local control of taxes is important.
“I don’t want to see our decisions being made through Springfield,” he said.
He said one of the advantages of Home Rule is being able to levy a sales tax instead of a property tax to avoid overloading property owners.
“The city can tailor taxes to Mt. Vernon’s needs, whether it’s for roads, sewer or anything else,” Moore said. “They can make development agreements with certain companies, and that’s the beautiful thing about Home Rule in my opinion.”
Moore said he believes the construction of the question on the ballot is biased.
“Everyone needs to be educated on what it means,” he said. “We need to be educated on what a yes vote means and what a no vote means. That’s what I want for the voters.”
Brandon Bullard, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Keep Home Rule Committee, said the Chamber has put out a resolution to vote no on the referendum.
He said Home Rule allows the city and development professionals to make development or incentive agreements with companies interested in coming to Mt. Vernon or expanding their operations in the city.
“Without that, they have to go through our local legislators,” he said. “With home rule, we can call our local council people, and they can make it happen for the benefit of the community.”
Bullard said one example of Home Rule’s benefits is the recent expansion of Continental Tire the Americas.
“They could have expanded in any of their plants around the world,” he said. “What they decided was because of Home Rule.”
City Manager Ron Neibert said even with Home Rule, the way the city can attempt to structure development and incentive agreements is extremely limited.
“To do any agreements outside of the normal parameters in a non-Home Rule community, we would have to go to state,” he said. “That makes it extremely difficult to negotiate without the Home Rule authority.”
Neibert said in addition to the expansion at Continental Tire, Home Rule has allowed the city to make development or incentive agreements with Magnum Steel and Pepsi Mid-America, among other businesses.
“It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to structure those agreements the way we did without Home Rule authority,” he said. “We have been able to implement capital improvement plans for the city in areas that have been severely lacking previously, such as water, sewer and quality of life.”
Neibert added that property taxes can be raised without Home Rule authority, though he said the city works to keep property tax increases low.
“The city has done a good job keeping tax rates as low as possible,” he said. “In the past several years, any increase we’ve had has not been over 4.99 percent.”
He said last year, the city intentionally kept the property tax rate increase below five percent and used Home Rule sales taxes to fund $55,000 of property tax liability.
“We could have raised property taxes last year about 7 or 8 percent, but we chose not to,” he said. “We used Home Rule to meet some pension obligations and have kept it off the tax bills.”
He said any revenue from Home Rule implemented prior to any changes will be allowed to remain in effect. He added that some city decisions, like the Mobile Home Ordinance and Housing Ordinance, are not Home Rule-related.
“I’ve seen some letters to the editor where people talked about the Mobile Home and Housing Ordinance,” he said. “None of those were under Home Rule authority, they were under the city’s normal authority as a municipality. Those ordinances have no effectiveness based on Home Rule, and they could have passed with or without it.”