On Tuesday, New Castle City Council authorized a request to have a home rule referendum placed on the ballot.
Voters will be asked if a study to consider implementing a home rule charter is a good idea, and if so, to simultaneously elect seven people to staff a commission that would do the study.
The recommendation of home rule comes as a part of a three-year exit plan compiled by the city’s Act 47 coordinators. Upon exiting Act 47 — which it must do by 2022 — New Castle will lose the ability to levy taxes (0.4 percent on residents and a 0.3 percent on commuters) allowed only by its financially distressed city status. A home rule form of government would enable the city to make up the lost revenue by instituting its own earned income tax targeted at residents.
It’s not the only recommendation in the proposed exit plan that would aim either to create revenue or cut expenses. And as one of the coordinators put it, home rule “is not a perfect fix, but it is an available one,” one that gives the city a way to generate funding other than through property taxes. If the Home Rule is not adopted, the city should undertake a 35-percent real estate tax increase over three-year period, the plan said. Rates would jump from 14.226 (2019) to 19.226 (2022).
So, what is home rule?
The state Department of Community and Economic Development describes it as an act transferring the authority to act in municipal affairs from state law to a local charter that is adopted and amended by voters. Municipalities governed by state code can act only where specifically authorized by state law. Home rule municipalities, on the other hand, can do anything that’s not specifically denied by the state constitution, the General Assembly, or the charter itself.
In short, home rule municipalities can create ordinances based on their specific local needs. Such needs could conceivably include reorganizing local government structure.
Home rule itself, though, is no panacea. No matter what the structure of the local government, its positions must be filled with men and women able and willing to make thoughtful, and in many cases, difficult decisions.
For instance, home rule municipalities aren’t bound by state-set tax limits. But a balance must still be struck between setting taxes at a sufficient level to fund city services, and setting them so high that no one wants to live or locate a business within the city. That, in turn, may require reduction in services or departments, which could prove equally unpopular with taxpayers.
And the responsibility for critically considered choices doesn’t end with elected officials.
With home rule providing more opportunity for self-rule, it also becomes incumbent upon residents to step up and become a stronger part of governing themselves. In other words, residents need to improve upon the woeful voter percentage rates we’ve seen at the polls in recent years.
Again, home rule is just one of the suggestions made in the Act 47 exit plan that the city must approve by Aug. 22. It cannot approve certain sections of the plan and approve others.
It’s an all-or-nothing deal.
If council rejects the deal, the city could be looking at state receivership. Tomorrow, we will examine what that might mean.