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Coloma problems lasting

Township has been discussing concerns with finances since 2007

Published: Monday, Nov. 18, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST

(Continued from Page 2)

ROCK FALLS – For years, Coloma Township has struggled with properly recording its finances and reporting them to the public, documents show. It also has been late in paying its payroll taxes.

But township officials rarely discussed the problems from 2007 to 2012 – if meeting minutes are any indication. They started to become focused on the financial issues only this year. 

Other issues – monogrammed jackets and a plaque with trustees’ names – seemed to grab more attention during monthly meetings of the board of trustees.

In 2012, Whiteside County was withholding more than $400,000 in property tax revenue from the Rock Falls-based township. 

Why?

Because township Supervisor Debra Burke hadn’t turned in certificates proving she had published 3 years of financial statements in the newspaper – a situation she blamed, in part, on health issues.

But these types of problems have plagued the Rock Falls-based township for years. 

According to the March 14, 2007, minutes, then-Trustee Bob Sondgeroth noted the township had not published 2 years of financial statements. Trustee Gene Jacoby wondered whether the township’s auditors had noticed that the county had withheld money because of this failure.

Burke answered they had.

This is apparently the same situation that happened in 2012, when the township had gone more than a year without revealing its finances publicly.

In an interview earlier this month, Burke said the 2007 situation wasn’t as bad, with the county withholding only a payment or two. 

At an Aug. 8, 2007, meeting, Coloma officials revealed the township had not cashed two outstanding checks from the county.

Sondgeroth questioned how the township could have overlooked this money and asked, “Why did we not miss these monies due us?”

The minutes include no answer.

In an interview last month, Burke said Coloma survived without property tax revenue for more than a year in 2012 because it had enough reserves. Its main fund balance, though, dropped to about $5,000.

Monogrammed jackets among expenses

Despite the issues, township officials focused on other matters. 

In 2012, board members voted to buy monogrammed jackets for all township officials and employees, and in 2008, they agreed to order a wall plaque with the names of all the trustees in the township’s history.

Those items generated discussion in at least two meetings. Both were pushed by Trustee Jacoby, who has served more than 35 years. Jacoby, also a Whiteside County Board member, hasn’t returned numerous calls for comment.

In 2011, a board majority voted to double members’ pay to $150 when a regular meeting immediately followed a budget session. Both are conducted in one sitting, but are technically separate meetings.

Supervisor Burke opposed the measure, later finding that state law barred the increase.

The board also approved thousands in donations to local schools and a Rock Falls economic development group, as well as a $2,000 sponsorship for the Rock Falls High School scoreboard.

Earlier this year, as trustees became more concerned with financial issues, Jacoby proposed the township develop its own flag to fly, an idea that apparently fizzled.

In Illinois, townships have three required functions – maintain roads, assess properties, and provide assistance to the poor. But they are allowed to undertake other missions, as bigger townships, including Sterling Township, tend to do.

Payroll taxes also an issue

Burke holds a lot of power over finances. She was the only authorized signer of the township’s bank accounts; auditors typically recommend more signatures.

In 2012, the board appeared to have increased that number to two required signers, according to the minutes. Earlier this year, though, Jacoby questioned why that hadn’t happened. The township clerk, Pamela Erby, said the township was waiting until it completed its audit. To date, that hasn’t happened.

The board of trustees also is behind in filing financial reports with the state comptroller’s office. Coloma hasn’t turned in a report since 2009.

It is the only government entity in Whiteside County that hasn’t done so, and that includes 21 other townships, all but one of which are smaller than Coloma.

Another problem – payroll taxes – has become apparent.

In an Oct. 7 letter to Coloma officials, the township’s auditing firm, Wipfli, said the state had informed the township that it hadn’t paid payroll withholding taxes, even though those payments were recorded in the accounting software.

“Currently, we are unaware on the amount of the unpaid federal withholding taxes,” Wipfli said.

According to the township’s published financial statement, Coloma paid $24,000 to the IRS in 2012, but nothing in the previous 3 years. That may indicate the township was late with payroll taxes to the federal government as well, but Burke said that money was previously listed under a bank account.

The published financial statements have been riddled with errors. Expense and revenue line items include the same amounts year after year, which should be a highly unlikely occurrence.  

Burke takes blame

In a brief interview recently, Burke said all of the township’s records were public. At first, she calmly answered questions from a reporter. 

But when the reporter asked her about why she hadn’t submitted statements to the comptroller by Oct. 31 – as she had promised she would – she started shaking. Then she broke down in tears.

Burke, who started as supervisor in 1981, took the blame for the financial problems. Then she said she wasn’t good at math.

“I’m trying to be accurate,” she said. 

This has been a rough year for Burke. According to the minutes of meetings, more officials have been questioning the finances, including Jacoby, who inquired repeatedly about the status of the audit. At one point, Burke wasn’t returning his calls, which apparently angered him.

At most meetings, cemetery manager Mary Bowman and road commissioner Ruthie Rogers have asked about the balances in their accounts. In July, Rogers asked for 36 months of township bank statements through a Freedom of Information Act request. Burke didn’t respond.

Rogers submitted a complaint to the attorney general’s office. 

‘Burke can’t get out of rut’

At meetings missed by Burke, her colleagues have been particularly pointed about the problems.

During the September meeting, officials noted that Rogers brought up the same concerns month after month.

The minutes then state: “Trustee [Peggy] McFadden agrees that Rogers never gets an answer. It seems that Burke can’t get out of the rut… [Then-Trustee Bob] Sondgeroth stated we don’t have any power over her, she is elected.”

Burke’s term ends in 2017. 

Bowman asked questions about the money, noting that other area townships pay Coloma to handle requests for assistance to the poor, according to the minutes. 

“Who do they pay for those services?” Bowman asked. “Does the township receive those funds?”

McFadden recently said the township’s finances are a mess. The township needs to start over with its books, she said.

Trustee Mary Ann Richardson said she is looking into the matter. Last week, the board appointed Walter Neal to fill the seat held by Sondgeroth, who resigned in September. 

In a telephone interview, Rogers said Burke still had not given her the documents in response to the July request. For an earlier request from Rogers, though, Burke did respond – about 6 months later. (The Freedom of Information Act mandates a 5-business day deadline, unless an extension is sought.) 

“Our township has problems,” Rogers said. “We are working through them. It’s going to be a long time to get ourselves squared away. We will solve this and be a better township for it.”

Nepotism allowed in township hirings

ROCK FALLS – Coloma Township officials are allowed to hire their family members, which is the case with many government entities in Illinois.

In May 2008, nepotism became an issue during a meeting of Coloma's board of trustees. 

During a monthly report, Assessor Mary Crebo said she had hired her daughter and granddaughter to work 20 hours a week and "all is working great," according to meeting minutes.

Longtime Trustee Gene Jacoby asked whether hiring relatives was a problem.

Supervisor Debra Burke responded that the daughter and granddaughter were doing a good job and that it was hard to hire someone for only 20 hours a week.

Burke said at the time that she was considering a personnel policy that would address such issues.

In an interview this week, Crebo said she had hired her daughter and granddaughter for a couple of months.

"It's not against the law," said Crebo, who has been the assessor since 1998. "They [daughter and granddaughter] are very bright and intelligent women."

She said she doesn't advertise positions but puts out the word that she is looking for help, particularly in groups to which she belongs.

"I like to work with people I get along with," she said. "The salary is not the best."

The positions start at $8 an hour.

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