Each year, some Champaign County residents will see a small drainage district fee on their property tax bill, typically between $15 to $30.
But those fees add up to more than $1.5 million annually for the county’s 321 districts and sub-districts, run by a three-member commission and a small group of lawyers, who operate in near invisibility when compared with other county agencies.
On the first Tuesday of September between the times of 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., the drainage district commissioners of Champaign County are appointed or elected.
The commissioners’ job is to coordinate plans to prevent flooding and manage waste from storms and other forms of drainage. The commissioners of these districts must own property within the boundaries of their districts.
In Champaign County, there are over 109 organized drainage districts according to Don Wauthier, the Vice President of Berns, Clancy and Associates, a land surveying firm that covers multiple types of issues regarding land, including drainage. Wauthier added that “there are some [drainage districts] that are more active than others.”
Indeed, including sub-districts, the county’s financial reports known as settlement sheets list 321 districts, but 88 or about 27 percent, received no money last year.FountainHead2022SettlementSheetEX
If a property owner lives in one of the districts, a drainage district assessment may appear on property tax bills, but it is often vague on what that entails or means, and it is rarely discussed. Wauthier said the assessments show up on tax bills but aren’t actually taxes.
“Drainage districts do not collect any taxes, they collect a drainage benefit assessment,” he said. “That assessment does typically show up for collection on a real estate tax bill, but it is not a tax.”
Finding out the total revenue and expenditures of these districts can be difficult, as few public documents discuss the districts. CU-CitizenAccess manually reviewed county settlement sheets to review the totals received by each district and sub-district in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Some information can be found from the county treasurer’s report on the account balance, a county Regional Planning Commission report from 2010 with district names listed and some figures and a recent report from the county Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Consortium. Other records are kept by the clerk of the Champaign County Circuit Court Clerk.
The data shows the districts collected $1.73 million from Champaign County last year, a slight increase from $1.61 million in 2020. Overall, 21% of the 321 districts and sub-districts increased the amount collected since 2020, 12% decreased and 67% were unchanged.
The drainage districts that received the most money from the county were Big Slough Main and Fountain Head Main, which received $110,000 and $82,000, respectively. Big Slough is northwest of Rantoul and Fountain Head is between Champaign and Mahomet, a map from the regional planning commission prepared in 2007 indicates.CCRPC_DrainageDistrictMap
The amount collected from one drainage district to another varies based on the fiscal needs of an individual district in a specific year. Wauthier said this is because each district has a maximum amount of money that must be set and approved by a county judge during hearings. However, the drainage district is not required to collect the maximum amount.
On the county’s property tax assessment lookup tool, one’s tax bill may include information under a separate section about the drainage benefit assessment amount, which often varies depending on where the property is located.
For example, one resident in Gifford paid $20 to the Harwood and Kerr drainage district. A resident on Windsor Road in Champaign paid $30 to Fountain Head. Marc Shaw, one of the commissioners for Fountain Head, paid $20 to the district.
But many residents have nothing listed under drainage districts, and even some properties within a district have $0 listed.
Necessity of drainage districts debated in Illinois
The Illinois Constitution of 1870 gave power to the state’s General Assembly to make laws that would give drainage rights to landowners. These rights allowed landowners to use land for ditching purposes. From 1871 until 1885, all drainage commissions were required to have three members. This changed in 1885, when drainage districts with completed construction had authorization to appoint one commissioner.
These commissions levy property taxes that pay for the maintenance and construction of drainage systems. The Illinois Association of Drainage Districts (IADD) formed when there was a move to eliminate the districts because some legislatures thought the system was antiquated.
The association’s executive director, Sara Smith, said in an email the goals of the association are to: “preserve the right of landowners in Illinois to freely drain their land; preserve drainage districts in their current form; represent drainage districts and property rights in Illinois Legislature; and provide educational opportunities, support, and assistance to drainage commissioners in cooperation with other agricultural and environmental groups.”
Over 1,700 of these districts have been created in Illinois, but nearly half of them are now disbanded or inactive according to the association. About 900 remain active in the state.
Unlike the association some consider drainage districts unnecessary. Illinois State Senator Dan McConchie drafted a bipartisan bill in 2019 that would allow local governments to have the power to eliminate drainage districts in their area.
The legislation, Senate Bill 90, which paved the way for drainage districts to be dissolved and allow them to be taken over by another unit of government, only if the specific district is at least 50% in a municipality. The bill passed unanimously out of the state Senate’s Local Government committee in February 2019.
The bill mostly had an impact in the Chicago area and its surrounding suburbs, where McConchie represents.
“We don’t have much farmland up here anymore,” McConchie said in an interview. “The city and its suburbs have been taken over by strip malls or housing developments, but the local unit of government created by farmers back in the day still existed.”
McConchie said many municipalities did not have the ability to take over drainage districts and assume responsibilities. Thus, the legislation for the bill was drafted to allow local units of governments to dissolve the district and take over responsibilities.
McConchie also talked about how it helped alleviate the tax burden on residents who were paying for these districts to not function.
“It was required that the tax levy being put by the drainage district on residents either be eliminated or reduced overtime,” McConchie said. “That way, you are having a unit of government that might have the equipment and the expertise to go ahead and handle it. Taxpayers could end up saving money over time.”
The bill passed several years ago, and the senator produced the idea while he was in office, not during the campaign.
“I had one drainage district that was still legally in place but wasn’t functional,” he said. “It still existed and had a place on people’s tax bills, but there were no elected officials to run it. Plus, I had local units of government that wanted to take over the responsibilities.”
This was before SB90 was written and proposed, and McConchie said he found it unnecessary to constantly make it a state issue in every case like it.
“We had to run a special bill to eliminate the drainage district,” he said. “There is no reason we should be doing special legislation with the General Assembly every time we want to do this. There should be a process allowing local units of government to do it themselves.”
Land surveyor Wauthier said it is difficult for drainage districts to work with lawmakers because “the majority of state lawmakers live in a municipality and do not know about or understand drainage districts or even farmland drainage needs in general.”
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