BELLEVILLE — Illinois’ slow but steady population decline could jeopardize the home rule status some Metro East cities enjoy.
Home rule grants cities broad taxing and regulatory powers, making it easier to quickly tackle local issues and fund projects and services. Status is automatically granted to any Illinois city with more than 25,000 residents. Towns can also achieve home rule through a referendum, as Fairview Heights did.
“It gives them broad opportunity to come up with innovative solutions without having to seek permission from the General Assembly,” said Maryam Judar, Citizen Advocacy Center's executive director. “Without home rule, a municipality has to work within its narrow authority. It needs permission from the state if it seeks to work outside of that.”
The 2020 census could reveal population counts lower than the magic number for some local communities, including Collinsville and East St. Louis, and others around the state such as Freeport and Harvey.
Flexibility and authority
A plastic bag fee failed in Glen Carbon in April because the community did not have home rule status. It didn’t have the legal authority to create a new tax.
With home rule, cities get greater flexibility over finances because they can levy new taxes. They can also exercise power over building, zoning, sanitation, civil disturbance and many other aspects of local governance, according to documents from the Illinois Municipal League.
Collinsville and East St. Louis both posted populations above 25,000 in the 2010 census, though current census estimates show Collinsville at 24,676 and East St. Louis at 26,678. But an undercount could skew East St. Louis’ numbers.
City officials from Collinsville and East St. Louis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Cities don’t automatically lose home rule when they drop below 25,000 residents, but they must ask their residents to vote whether to remain home rule with a specific question: “Shall the entity cease to be home rule?” Judar said.
“It’s a little counter-intuitive, because if you say ‘yes’ to the cease question, you don’t want home rule,” she said. “If you say ‘no’ to the cease question, you want home rule.”
Residents should not take this kind of referendum lightly because of the powers it grants to a city government, Judar said.
“Local government touches people more so than any other form of government,” she said.
The case of Edwardsville
This isn’t the first time a community in the Metro East achieved home rule and then slipped below the 25,000 resident threshold. Edwardsville earned home rule status after a special census in 2007 determined it met the threshold.
City lawmakers were interested in achieving the special status because of the authority it gave to a municipality, said Gary Niebur, mayor of Edwardsville at the time.
“It was viewed as giving you more authority to operate your city in which you feel is best for your residents,” he said.
In 2010, Edwardsville’s official population dropped below to 24,293, triggering a referendum. Niebur was not concerned that the measure would fail, which had happened in other communities in the state.
“I felt good,” he said. “I felt that we proved what we wanted to do with home rule was in the best interest of the entire community.”
He adds that the city was cautious in its use of home rule and only focused on how officials thought it would benefit the community. For communities in the Metro East that might face a similar referendum after the 2020 census, Niebur advises reflecting on how the city has used home rule.
“Really list the things that the city has accomplished because they had home rule,” he said. “Many of those things should be positive.”
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