As a quick reminder, I’m writing for the exclusive benefit of my peers who were born in 1983 or later. It’s a purposeful filter that is excluding my own husband, just so you know how serious I am about this.
Yesterday we took a brief glimpse into Rockford, 35 years ago. We saw a tiny piece of the context in which Rockford residents chose to rescind a set of powers known as Home Rule. The article I shared mentioned the results of that vote and talked briefly about what prompted a group of citizens to get the issue on the ballot. Again, I was not here at the time, but from what I have learned there were two main reasons for the citizens’ efforts: 1) Local leaders were overreaching in their powers, it was better to return authority to Springfield; 2) Under Home Rule property taxes were going up too fast and would only continue to rise should the power be kept at the city level. These are completely reasonable concerns. The question is, of course, how reality played out.
During our lifetimes, Illinois has made a name for itself in terms of political scandals and fiscal insanity. Governors imprisoned, implausible amounts of pension debt, negative net migration (we’re losing residents faster than any other state in the nation); we’ve just come off a two-year stint with no state budget, and stalemates at the statehouse are the rule rather than the exception. Rockford, now the 4th largest city on the cusp of becoming the 5th, has seen property taxes climb by an inflation-adjusted rate of 79% since 1983.
Add to these challenges enormous uncertainty at the federal level, particularly where the relationships between the federal, state, and local governments are concerned. Certain proposed bills, for instance the President’s infrastructure plan, point to an increase in the responsibility of local governments to fund and implement their own projects. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, in fact it could lead to a much-needed shift from “build, build, build” to “maintain, maintain, maintain”. However, it will require a very different method of governing and leadership at the local level, presenting a new set of challenges that will test the capacity of every municipality. Those “…frustrations of being sure where the answers are” will truly and more fully come home.
All cities will need to become even more adept at addressing the real-life social needs of their citizens, even more flexible and capable at building partnerships with entities from all sectors, and more effective at building creative responses to local challenges. For Rockford, a city that has yet to fully dig out from yet another recession yet where words like revitalization and rebirth are on many lips, the ability to meet local challenges head on with local solutions is beyond needed, it is vital. If local officials are not working with the full set of tools that are available to them, a set of tools to which 215 other cities in the state have access, we cannot hope to compete, let alone overcome the barriers presented by a dysfunctional statehouse and the uncertainties of the White House.
On March 20, Rockford voters will have the opportunity to vote to return a major tool to our city’s toolbox, specifically: “Shall the city of Rockford, Illinois, become a home rule unit?” Should the voters respond with YES, nothing happens. Seriously. Nothing happens automatically (with the possible exception of an improvement of our bond rating, which is only good news!). Every subsequent action will require discussion and vote by the city council. There are lots of options, some of which can help diversify city revenue and lesson the property tax burden, some of which improve flexibility and resources for our public safety entities, and some of which can improve economic development opportunities and impact quality of life. There are, in fact, so many options I won’t get into any more specifics here, but you can read more about them at www.rockfordhomerule.com
And here’s where the message for you, my lovely young friends, gets really important.
We, you and I, can reverse a 35-year reality, to bring back options that have not been available to our city leaders in our lifetimes. But this cannot happen without your voice and your participation in the effort to return Home Rule to Rockford. This effort cannot be won on the backs of those who are retired, or of those who were already adults in 1983 and who want to see a different reality, because ultimately, we are the ones who will be around for another 35 years to see what unfolds. We are the ones who will finish degrees, build careers, raise children, and make a life in this city.
So, my message is threefold:
1. Volunteer 3 hours between now and March 20 as a phone banker or a canvasser for the Home Rule campaign. Just three hours of your time will make an incredible difference. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to get connected.
2. Go vote on March 20, and vote YES to return Home Rule to Rockford.**
3. REGARDLESS of the result of the election on March 20, it's up to us to ensure that 35 years from now we aren't still frustrated, waiting for some answer from above, to change the course of our city. Find an issue that you want to see advanced in this city and put your voice and your energy behind making it happen. The barriers to entry are low, the need is high, and unless we step up to work alongside the generations ahead of us, a new reality is ours to lose. I promise, you can do this. If there’s a way I can help you make a connection or anything else, email me.
This March, don’t send me a birthday card (seriously it will just remind me how old I’ve gotten), give the gift of your vote, your voice, and your service to our city.
**If you need to register to vote or to change the address at which you are registered, visit the Board of Elections at 301 S. 6th Street. Their phone is 815-987-5750 and you can also find them at VoteRockford.com, where you can also find your polling place. Early voting begins February 21.