Why did Kenilworth’s Home Rule Referendum Fail?
Inadequate public education? Fear of higher taxes? Or outright opposition?
Six weeks ago, Kenilworth residents made their way to the polling place, stepped into the booth and voted down the village’s home rule referendum.
But what caused 61.8 percent of the 1,382 voters to issue a decisive no to a proposed change billed as a potential solution to Kenilworth’s mounting infrastructure woes?
Kenilworth Village President Fred G. Steingraber said he thinks poor timing, insufficient village communication and residents’ fears of higher property taxes are mostly to blame.
Had the measure passed, the village would have assumed various taxing, zoning and licensing powers that had previously fallen to the state. More importantly, according to Steingraber, the newfound capabilities would have been used to help finance an overhaul of the town’s aged storm water drains, sewer lining, water mains, fire hydrants, streets and curbs -- elements of which are over a century old.
When Steingraber speaks about the village board’s desire for home rule, he explains the proposal as a virtual requirement to fixing Kenilworth’s infrastructure problems without risking running out of funds midway through the project or costing the village in the long run.
Yet, even he called the referendum’s defeat “unsurprising”.
“This is a Process”
Before the village board decided to put the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot, village officials visited with representatives from other North Shore communities that had successfully made the switch to home rule.
Steingraber said one of the big takeaways from these meetings was the importance of convincing residents of the benefits that accompany empowering local government.
“Most of the communities that I visited with,” Steingraber said, “Northfield, Lake Forest, Winnetka, they spent a year and a half conducting educational sessions on what home rule is. This is a process… It isn’t intuitive, and people don’t necessarily understand if [home rule] is the objective or if it is the means.”
But Kenilworth officials didn’t wait 18 months before putting the referendum on a ballot. They didn’t even wait a year. Instead, the question was left to the public after only six months of informational meetings, many of which had modest to light turnout.
Steingraber said that those who attended the public meetings were enthusiastic about the change, and asked village officials why they couldn’t get a jump on tackling the infrastructure problems sooner. In response, the Kenilworth Village Board decided to put the home rule question to voters in November.
In retrospect, Steingraber said he thinks the referendum was rushed.
“Not enough people were available to turn out to get some of this information,” Steingraber said. “We didn’t follow the advice we were given from these other communities to spend more time.”
With more meetings, Steingraber believes he could have successfully disputed opponents’ biggest contention: that the massive infrastructure improvement project brought on by home rule would cause property taxes to rise.
“Everybody is fearful of taxes”
Steingraber said that as a Kenilworth resident, he understands his neighbors’ fears that the proposed governmental change might cost them. But, as he tells it, home rule could actually save residents money in the long run.
According to documents on the village’s website, Kenilworth officials projected that, including costs for the proposed infrastructure project, the average property tax increase would be approximately 3 percent per year under home rule and 5.3 percent per year under the current system. Based on this projection, according to the village, home rule would save residents an average of 28.5 percent per year in property taxes, though the impact would be felt more on the backend of the projection’s 30-year timeframe.
“Home rule doesn’t do anything to increase property taxes,” Steingraber said. “It also gives you lots of options of how to contain or reduce the cost of the infrastructure program through alternative revenue sources.”
Steingraber estimated that, under home rule, the village’s newfound powers would help offset 50 to 60 percent of the decade-long project’s $20 million to $25 million price tag by giving Kenilworth better access to grant funding and allowing the village to participate in collaborative improvement programs with other North Shore communities.
Home rule would also permit the village board to vote on when to issue municipal bonds instead of going out to referendum each time Kenilworth needed additional project funds. If the village had to put forward multiple public votes to fund the project, Steingraber said he worries the project could suffer from “referendum fatigue”, when people who have already had their sewers and streets fixed have little incentive to vote for another bond issuance.
Steingraber also warned that if the village’s infrastructure problems were left unresolved, Kenilworth property valuations were likely to decrease, hitting resident’s wallets in a different way and damaging the community’s reputation in the process.
Too much power?
Yet, assurances over current fiscal concerns might do little to persuade some residents. A handful of those who attended the village’s educational meetings expressed fear that home rule might give the village board too much power.
“The fear that was usually observed in some of the meetings,” Steingraber said, “was, ‘well, we don’t know who will be sitting in the trustee chairs in the next few years, so we don’t know if we can trust them.”
Steingraber said that sort of uneasiness is unfounded, saying residents should trust their neighbors more than the state.
“When you consider the situation that the State of Illinois is in financially, which is disastrous in terms of the unfunded pension debt and liabilities the state has,” Steingraber said, “you seriously have to ask yourself whether you’re better off trusting the State of Illinois than trusting your neighbors that are serving here and you know live in a tiny community where there isn’t much anonymity for people who go and hide out.”
One way or another, the Village of Kenilworth will have to address its aged infrastructure, but a practical path is unclear.
“We will certainly be working to begin to address this,” Steingraber said, “but it will be on a different schedule and it will certainly be on a different financial cost basis when we begin to undertake it.”
Village trustees could choose to push for a public vote on home rule again through another referendum on February’s primary election ballot.
Steingraber said that he believed November’s referendum could have passed with more public outreach.
“We found, when we had time to visit with people, they changed their minds,” Steingraber said.
Yet, Steingraber gave no indication Kenilworth would take another shot at switching to home rule.
Do you think the Village of Kenilworth should try to become a home rule municipality through another referendum, or do you think the results of the first vote were enough? Tell us in the poll below.