CARBONDALE — The decline in enrollment at Southern Illinois University has had a wide range of effects on Carbondale, and one consequence on the distant horizon is the potential loss of the city’s home-rule status.
Municipalities containing at least 25,000 people are automatically granted home rule, a legal standing first introduced in Illinois in 1970 that allows communities more control in financial engineering and privatization of services.
Historically, Carbondale’s population has hovered right around or just above the 25,000 mark. In 2010, the United States Census Bureau counted 25,509 people in Carbondale, but the city has since lost residents, according to City Manager Gary Williams.
“One of the questions folks always have for us is ‘How many (SIU) students are counted in the census?’” Williams said. “And the answer is we really don’t know, but we would assume a lot of them. So with the decline in enrollment, we haven’t really seen other housing growth here. We obviously have a concern that in the 2020 census, we’ll be below the 25,000, and that puts our home-rule status at risk.”
Home rule gives municipalities, villages and counties freedom from reliance on state statutes to deal with management of day-to-day operations. Such units have greater autonomy to craft laws and ordinances pertaining to the municipality and to establish new revenue streams.
Carbondale’s home-rule sales tax is currently 2.5 percent, and that revenue funds a number of city services necessary to a university town, Williams argued. Home-rule authority also provides the ability to have building code enforcement; Carbondale inspects rental properties every three years.
“We’re a university town and we have a high daytime population, so that alone calls for more law enforcement, and more law enforcement requires more pension obligation. There’s more wear-and-tear on our streets, which requires more street department people. Because we’re a university town, we have a lot of rental housing, so people have an expectation of having code enforcement. There’s a cost of that,” Williams said.
Outside of population, municipalities can obtain home-rule authority by referendum. If the 2020 census indicates that Carbondale’s population is below 25,000, the city will have to bring the item to a vote in the 2021 general election.
“The good thing about doing a referendum is you always have it,” Williams said.
But anti-tax sentiments and general mistrust of local government could prompt voters to reject the measure.
“Our fear would be that there certainly would be an anti-home rule lobby, as there are in all cities that try this, but at the same time, we have a lot of services we know we need to provide, because we’re a service center for the region, and there’s a cost to be in that service center,” Williams said.
Illinois Realtors, a private property advocacy group, opposes home rule because it allows municipalities to put more red tape and taxes on real estate transactions and to impose new inspections and fees, according to the organization’s website.
But losing the home-rule sales tax would mean the city would need to make up the revenue for services, likely by raising taxes on real estate.
“If we lose the ability to collect home-rule sales tax, we’re going to have to make up for it in real estate tax. So I would think that argument alone would incentivize people to understand the value of home rule and how important it is to Carbondale,” Williams said.
Although the possibility of a referendum is still a long way off, the matter has been on the city’s radar for some time.
“It’s a concern of ours. It’s definitely a risk, and SIU is making a lot of attempts to turn things around, but it’s going to take time,” Williams said.