ROCK FALLS – By default, Denice Doss ended up in charge of the drainage district on the south end of Rock Falls.
A couple of years ago, she joined the district’s commission, where her father, George Hallman, continues to serve. In recent times, though, her father became ill, and the other member, Doug Furr, told her he wants to end his involvement.
“There are supposed to be three people on the ditch commission,” she said. “Now, it’s kind of me.”
Doss, who wants to fill the other two commission positions, has been hiring contractors to clean up the ditch, which handles drainage for the south part of Rock Falls and the outskirts.
After a recent rainstorm, Doss showed parts of the ditch to a reporter that were free-flowing without any obstructions, which she credited to cleanup work in recent years.
Other portions, including behind Walmart and other businesses, need repairs. Trees have fallen into the ditch. Litter has made its way into the water.
Doss trudged through mud to visit the part of the ditch that crosses under the Hennepin Canal. The ditch ends up in the Rock River.
“Who’s going to pay for the work?” she asked. “Who’s going to take care of it? It’s a thankless job.”
The drainage district – formally known as the Montmorency and Coloma Drainage District 5 – is one of 6,994 local taxing districts in Illinois, which has more such entities than any other state.
Every 3 years, the district holds elections for commissioners. Few attend. So commissioners must be recruited. They don’t get paid.
Doss said she puts in about 20 hours a month for the drainage district. That competes with her other responsibilities: The mother of two, she runs her father’s storage unit business and oil and lube shops and volunteers for her church.
The files for the drainage district reside in her office.
Some question drainage tax
To seek a tax levy, the drainage district must submit information with the circuit clerk’s office, including a financial report.
The Whiteside County circuit clerk’s office hasn’t received a financial report from the district for the last 6 years, Clerk Susan Ottens said. That report showed the agency had $4,800 on hand.
Doss, though, has the reports in her office and showed them to a reporter.
The city of Rock Falls has given the district $5,000 a year in recent years. The district has collected another $11,000 through property taxes. Among the expenditures are about $250 a year for a local lawyer, who prepares the annual tax levy information.
In 2011, Rock Falls resident Jack Guerrieri noticed the drainage tax on his industrial park property in 2011. It was $54.
Compared with other taxing entities, the tax was relatively small. But he wanted to find out how that charge ended up on his bill.
The district, which consists of more than 500 properties, charges many homeowners about $12. Owners of bigger properties pay more.
Last year, Guerrieri asked the county clerk’s office about the tax. In a letter in August, County Clerk Dana Nelson told him that it was first included in the 2006 tax bills.
The district has been around for much longer, but apparently had no tax for years. The commissioners wanted to raise funds to pay for needed improvements, which has resulted in a better ditch, Doss said.
Last September, Guerrieri sent a public records request to the drainage district. He wanted to see its audits and correspondence between the drainage district and the circuit clerk’s office regarding the tax.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the district had 5 days to respond or seek an extension. It failed to respond.
No response to public records request
In November, Guerrieri filed a complaint with the state’s attorney general, which handles public records issues.
“I received a call from Denice Doss concerning the request, assuring me that I would get the information I requested,” he said. “As of today, I have not received anything requested in the Freedom of Information request.”
The attorney general decided to look into the matter.
In an interview, Doss said the district doesn’t have to do audits and that Guerrieri could have obtained the correspondence from the circuit clerk. State law, however, requires that government entities respond to public records requests, even to say they don’t have the sought-after documents.
Assistant Attorney General Matt Sebek said he has contacted the drainage district’s attorney and Doss, explaining to them that they need to respond to public records requests.
Doss said she hasn’t met Guerrieri but invited him to become a drainage commissioner. Guerrieri declined.
Recently, Doss said she asked the county not to levy the tax for the time being. The district now has about $20,000 on hand, she said.
“We don’t need the tax,” she said. “I have enough to get the ditch cleaned from Route 40 to the river.”
Guerrieri said the drainage district’s attorney recently gave him a financial statement from some years ago, but he said he had yet to receive a response to his request for the correspondence between the district and the circuit clerk.
“I don’t want to offend anyone,” he said, “but no one has proved to me it was a legitimate tax in the first place.”