Recently, discussion has resurfaced regarding whether to acquire home-rule status for Champaign County. The autonomy designation gives the county government the maximum authority to make autonomous local decisions.
Counties without Home Rule only have the power to make decisions specifically authorized by state law; internal counties have the power to make any decision that is not specifically limited by state laws, including the most debated one – increasing tax authority.
The Illinois Compiled Statutes 55 ILCS 5 /, also known as the Illinois County Code, describes the many powers and duties that the state legislature has delegated to the county government as well as the mechanisms available to fund these activities.
As a unique case, Cook County is currently the only county in Illinois with self-governing authority specified in the county code. Other counties may opt for self-government through a local electoral referendum, although none have currently done so.
Many activities carried out by county governments are mandated by the offices of county elected officials. These duties include functions such as keeping records of real estate transactions, holding local elections and establishing a county courthouse.
The county may pursue many other activities considered optional, depending on the needs and wants of local residents, and for some of these, additional special taxes may be levied by local referendum (such as mental health council) or fees (such as animal control). It is the responsibility of the county council to approve a balanced annual budget to accomplish its tasks, whether or not the county has autonomy.
It is unlikely that a single county could (or would) perform all the activities permitted by the County Code. If possible, another entity, including a municipality, can fulfill this role sufficiently by creating another special tax district (with the approval of the voters) or through a private company.
In Champaign County, this includes such efforts as running a library, park, or hospital. If this is not a local priority, some permitted activities, such as a zoo, may not exist at all.
There are many fundraising strategies available to counties to increase revenues or reduce expenses to balance their budgets. Home Rule gives county councils the ability to assess additional types of taxes and fees not specifically mentioned in the County Code as available to county governments, thereby expanding their authority.
Resident approval for proposed future tax increases rests with voters when they decide to accept national government status, instead of individually voting on referendum questions for specific types of increases.
As an additional consideration, the County Code requires that a county executive can veto board actions in order to balance the wider discretion of the county council in an autonomous county.
In 2018, residents of Champaign County adopted this form of government, which creates the third branch of county government by separating the executive and legislative functions of a traditional council.
However, like the other county in Illinois with an executive (will), residents approved this change in the structure of local government without conferring local government status.
The basic question is to what extent the county board has autonomy to make tax decisions, and self-government is likely to be debated again whenever county budgets tighten.
Darlene Kloeppel is Champaign County’s first executive, elected in 2018. Got a topic you’d like her to cover? She takes requests to [email protected]