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Batavia home-rule battle lines are drawn

City ditches plan for advisory referendum

BATAVIA – Voters will decide the city of Batavia’s future with a binding referendum question to keep or revoke its home-rule powers.

At the urging of Mayor Jeff Schielke, Batavia city aldermen on Aug. 20 abandoned a plan to introduce an advisory referendum that would have outlined the potential ramifications of the city losing home-rule status.

Schielke told the Batavia City Council to “put its faith in the hands of the voters” and take no action on an advisory referendum, which the mayor said would simply cloud the issue.

“It creates an enormous amount of confusion,” Schielke said of the advisory referendum proposal.

On Aug. 6, a citizen group filed a petition to put the binding home-rule referendum on the ballot. The binding referendum that will be placed before voters at the Nov. 6 general election will read: “Shall the city of Batavia cease to be a home-rule unit?”

Many city officials worried that the question, which they are hoping voters will reject, is confusing and does not explain the potential effect on residents’ property taxes.

The nonbinding referendum question was to have read: “Shall the city of Batavia remain a home-rule unit of government in order to: (1) pay for the city’s general obligation bonds using sources of revenue that require home-rule authority to avoid increasing property taxes by $3.3 million (48 percent), which is approximately $325 per year for a home valued at $300,000; and, (2) maintain its home-rule crime-free housing program?”

The city is forecasting a loss of between $3.3 and $5.2 million a year in sales, liquor, gasoline and natural gas tax revenue if it is stripped of its home-rule powers, which could only partially be made up with an increase in the property tax levy.

The crime-free housing program gives the city and landlords of multifamily housing projects additional powers to monitor building tenants. City officials credit the program for reducing police calls to apartment complexes of six or more units.

The city automatically gained home-rule powers in 2009, when Batavia’s population reached 25,000. Home-rule communities in Illinois possess additional taxing and bonding power, without having to resort to public referendum questions.

At a committee meeting last week, aldermen tentatively approved the advisory referendum plan. Later, Schielke contacted each council member individually to express his opposition to the idea.

When aldermen came to the issue on the full City Council meeting agenda, Schielke repeated his concern and the proposal was dropped without taking a vote.

The petition to strip the city of its home-rule status was filed by the Batavians for a Responsible Government organization, led by Sylvia Keppel, Yvonne Dinwiddie and Carl Dinwiddie.

Yvonne Dinwiddie told the council that the wording of the referendum question is governed by state statute. At last week’s committee meeting, she said the question is clear.

“I don’t think the question is at all confusing,” Dinwiddie said. “Cease means to stop.”

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