A bill that was passed unanimously by both houses of the Illinois General Assembly last month will make it easier for voters to have a say before municipalities can sell a specialized type of bonds.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is expected to sign the bill.
The bill applies to what are known as alternate revenue bonds, which are backed by a specific revenue stream, but also are backed up by general property tax revenues.
“It’s somewhat of a hybrid which is payable from the revenue that is generated from the project. But if that enterprise revenue that is insufficient to pay the debt service on that bond, then the full faith and credit of the public body will kick in,” said Brian Day, the lead staff attorney for the Illinois Municipal League.
The legislation makes it easier to force a so called “backdoor referendum.” The bill reduces the number of petition signatures needed to force a referendum from 7.5 percent of registered voters in a community to the lessor of 5 percent of registered voters or 5,000.
The bill also lengthens the period of time allowed to gather those signatures to 45 days from the current 30 days. The bill also prohibits firms that advise municipalities of the feasibility of paying off such bonds from being otherwise involved in the project that the bonds would finance.
“I saw abuses in the issuance of alternate revenue bonds,” said state Rep. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills), the prime sponsor of the bill. “We saw an example up in Lakewood in which [the purchase of] a golf club was financed with alternate revenue bonds. It didn’t work out and property taxpayers were stuck with the bills. I want to make sure it’s easier for taxpayers to stop potentially bad projects.”
The bill does not apply to alternate revenue bonds that finance or refinance projects for public utilities, streets or public safety, so that the impact of the bill is expected to be limited.
The bill originally had a wider scope and also required proof of excess revenue to pay off the bonds. But that provision was dropped and made the final bill uncontroversial.
“It gives the people a greater opportunity to voice their opinion and that’s a good thing,” said State Senator Steven Landek, (D-Bridgeview), who also serves as the mayor of Bridgeview and represents portions of Riverside and Brookfield. “It maybe makes it a little harder on a municipality sometime if they think a project’s good and maybe some people are objecting to it. Of course there will be conflicts.
“Local governments will just have to make the case a little stronger to the residents so they understand it.”
Bridgeview, as a home rule community, generally does not have to issue alternate revenue bonds. But it has had to raise property taxes to pay for the construction of Toyota Park, the stadium for the Chicago Fire soccer team.
State Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) also supported the bill.
“It will make it easier for residents to object to a certain category of bond issues which are driven more by the operational revenues of a government related enterprise than they would if they were objecting to a more traditional bond issue,” Harmon said. “If any municipality would like to finance a project relying on enterprise revenues this bill will give the voters a greater voice in that decision.”
Village officials seem to be unconcerned about the impact of the bill if becomes law.
“I don’t think it’s really going to have that much of an impact on us,” said Riccardo Ginex, the village manager of Brookfield.
Tim Gillian, the village administrator of Forest Park, said that the bill wouldn’t likely impact Forest Park, but as a general matter he wished the General Assembly would stay out of municipal government.
“In general I would tell you that it’s distressing that the legislature is further hindering the non-home municipalities’ ability to manage themselves,” Gillian said. “There’s other fish in the sea that they should be working on rather than continuing to strip away the abilities of local municipalities to manage themselves.”
But Gillian said that the bill probably would not affect Forest Park in the near future.
“It probably won’t impact us much, because I don’t have any bond issues that I’m contemplating,” Gillian said.