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Freeport’s Continued Population Loss Could Mean The End of Home Rule

Freeport, Illinois — Home rule authority gives local elected officials expanded powers for self-government, including the ability to raise certain taxes and issue debt without voter approval. Local governments in home rule states are free to pass laws and ordinances as they see fit to further their operations.

Under the 1970 Illinois Constitution, Home Rule shifts decision making from the state level of government (Springfield) to the local level. For example, Home Rule status would allow a City to use existing Hotel/Motel Tax revenue for infrastructure and public safety. Without Home Rule, the Springfield legislature prohibits the City from using those funds for anything but marketing for tourism and economic development.

The threshold however for automatic home-rule status is a population of 25,000 or more. In 2010, or about 10 years ago, Freeport had 25,638 residents. Now it has an estimated 24,091 people, according to U.S. Census numbers released Thursday. Under the Illinois Municipal Code, a municipality may cease to be a home rule unit only through a referendum asking the voters if the community should maintain home rule status.

What that means is unless Freeport can persuade more people to move to Freeport by 2020, the city will have to place a question on the ballot in November 2022 asking voters if they want to retain home rule status.

In a 2010 article that appeared in the Journal Standard, it states “the Gaulrapp administration’s recent recommendation to raise the city tax levy by 22.5 percent provides a timely example of the home rule influence”.

It also states that home rule influenced the city’s passage of a 0.75 percent sales tax increase.

The author goes on to say in that 2010 article that the fate of Freeport’s home rule status “could be decided as early as next spring, confronting voters with serious questions about the extent of power held by their city government”.

In a more recent article Freeport’s city manager Lowell Crow told Chuck Sweeny that Freeport’s operating budget is about $18 million a year. He says taking $4 million or more out of it would have a “big impact”. Crow says it’s because Freeport relies “heavily” on sales taxes, which are allowed under home rule, to help fund city services.

Crow also says that without home rule Freeport would lose its home rule sales tax of $3.2 million. He says the city would lose its home rule food and beverage tax of $400,000 and its home rule gas tax, which he states is about $270,000. From a taxpayer stance, news of the city losing $3.9 million dollars of your money should be good news, not bad news.

Whether good or bad in the minds of Freeport citizens, what does it really matter if your left hand is paying less than your right hand? Where the money goes and how it is spent is of obvious importance, but it still doesn’t change the fact that the amount of money, in taxes, Freeport citizens are dishing out has always went up.

To show that, here are the historic property tax rates from the Stephenson County Treasurers office for Freeport City Corp, which is the city of Freeport.

Freeport City Corp – Property Tax Rates By Year.

2000 – 0.89156
2001 – 0.91432
2002 – 0.92015
2003 – 0.92382
2004 – 0.98748
2005 – 0.98726
2006 – 0.98479
2007 – 0.97592
2008 – 0.99200
2009 – 0.99993
2010 – 1.04272
2011 – 1.07009
2012 – 1.09819
2013 – 1.10111
2014 – 1.12227
2015 – 1.16454
2016 – 1.19899
2017 – 1.20963

As you can see, even though the average property tax in the city of Freeport is lower than the state average, (1.20963 as compared to 2.253%), historically it has still been on the rise. No matter how you slice it, it is still more money out of taxpayers pockets each year on average. As noted above, in 2010 the property tax rate in the city of Freeport was 1.04272. In 2017 it was 1.20963.

Point being, even with a property tax rate of 1.04272 to 1.20963 between the years of 2010 and today, (the past decade since the last census) we still haven’t built any homes. Not according to recent reports anyway. People haven’t moved to Freeport historically over the past decade because of any of these rates. Freeport’s population is in decline.

But just as the news of home rule comes to the forefront, and Freeport is again threatened by losing it, the city says they have now successfully, after 10 years, built its first home.

What is now part of a recently approved residential enterprise zone, two dozen lots have been made available to build single-family homes on.

While the news of a new home being built after a decade may be appealing, we haven’t heard that anyone has moved to Freeport because of it. Building a home isn’t the same as a family moving here.

Truth is, Freeport has new people move to its city all the time that you never hear about. If you want news of families and individuals actually moving to the city of Freeport, all you have to do is contact a realtor. They sell houses and businesses to people moving here all the time.

That said, seems to us that news would be appealing to anyone considering moving here. After all, what better testimonial for moving to Freeport could there possibly be, than the story of a family who moved to Freeport? But, you don’t hear those stories.

Instead, the city steps in (as home rule is threatened again) and now we’re building homes in a brand new enterprise zone in “hopes” to attract more people to move to Freeport. We don’t know if this is good for Freeport to be frank with you. What we’ve done in the past hasn’t seemed to work, so it’s hard to have faith on just the news of building a home. Maybe if it were sold we’d be more excited.

It bears to question then, (even if it might be misguided), is the true intention here to truly grow Freeport’s population? Or could all this merely be just a move to retain home rule status. Afterall, Freeport’s first spec house in ten years? Businesses have seemed to build new buildings here just fine in the past 10 years.

Ten years ago was around the very same time the previous census was conducted, when then too, home rule was threatened.

Coincidence?

Perhaps, but it does seem odd that Freeport’s city government has been able to grow and increase its budget to a whopping $18 million dollars, as the city’s population has been in decline. If your city’s population is in decline, how does that equate in the need for more government services? Why does the government need more money, as its city and citizens have less.

City of Freeport Budget:

2010-2011 – 15,898,503
2013-2014 – 17,391,210
2015 – 17,648,139
2016 – 17,601,319
2017 – 20,505,312
2018 – 18,073,744

Finally, according to SmartAsset, Illinois has the second highest property taxes in the country. It states that the statewide average effective tax rate is 2.32%, nearly double the national average. Based on an assessed home value of $170,000 in Stephenson County, SmartAsset shows an average tax rate of 2.591% whereas an assessed home value of $170,000 is 2.253% in the State.

As always, we welcome any and all feedback from you.

P.S. As a side note, Rockford voted home rule out in 1983. A referendum to bring it back failed in April.

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