Above: The Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District maintains 27 miles of ditches on a budget that hasn’t been raised 96 years. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

by Bob Bong

CHICAGO HEIGHTS, Ill. (September 29, 2022) – Illinois has more layers of government than most states. One that is so far down the totem pole most people don’t even know it exists is the Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District.

Preventing flooding

The Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District maintains 27 miles of ditches that prevent flooding in Lynwood, Sauk Village — except for the Deer Creek neighborhood — and Lansing south of 186th Street.

It was established in 1926 by 60 area farmers. Their goal was to protect and manage 12,000 acres of rich farmland. They set the original assessment at $2 per household, and that has never changed.

Over the years, much of the farmland has been replaced by subdivisions, but the ditches remain. The district’s job is to maintain them through the money raised by the annual assessment.

Stretching the budget

Many residents think about the Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District only when they get their annual bill in the mail.

Not everyone pays their assessment, either. “People throw the bill away because they don’t know what it’s about or think it’s a scam,” said Commissioner Jeff Morden.

They often find out they owe money to the district when they go to sell their home and find a lien from the district that must be paid before the sale can go through.

Adding to the problem, according to Morden and fellow Commissioner Harry Jongsma, is that $2 per household today doesn’t buy the same kind of services it did in 1926.

“We really have to stretch our budget,” said Morden, a commissioner since 2019.

Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District
Commissioner Jeff Morden tries to use social media to keep people informed about the work involved in maintaining the ditches in the district. This Facebook post from May 22, 2022, reads, “Good Morning everyone just wanted to post a few pictures of a project that was completed last week at the Lansing Municipal Airport. Contractors were out removing sediment from inside a culvert. This is the soil that was pulled out.” (Photos: Jeff Morden)

Both Jongsma and Morden decline to take their authorized stipends in order to provide more services.

“We don’t get paid to do this,” said Jongsma.

Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District
Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District Commissioners Harry Jongsma (left) and Jeff Morden presented information at the annual meeting on February 4, 2020. The two commissioners have declined the stipend they are entitled to because they know the district is short on funds. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Technical difficulties

Compounding the situation this year was a computer failure that delayed assessments being mailed out in August instead of April, as usual.

“We had to get a new computer system,” Morden said. “And we had to spend a lot of money on it.”

Complicating the computer issue was that the original programmer died before completing the transition to the new system. “He was 98 percent finished when he died,” Jongsma said. Another firm is completing the transition.

As part of the delay, the date for late payment was not extended from August 31, which led to dozens of calls from people complaining.

“It amounts to 12 cents on the $2 assessment,” Jongsma said. “We haven’t even started to impose the 6 percent late payment penalty.”

Increasing funding

Jongsma and Morden are exploring ways to increase funding for the district. Its annual budget fluctuates from year to year based on how many residents ignore the assessments.

Jongsma would like to raise the assessment to $25 per household for three years and then drop it down to $15 per year.

With that amount, he said, “We could make the ditches pristine.”

One way to bump up the assessment would be by referendum, which Jongsma doubts would pass.

“I can’t see the people out here voting for that,” he said, recalling how irate some were about the extra 12 cents on this year’s bill. Because the district tends to work behind the scenes, and does not have a website, and has fewer than 100 followers of its two-year-old Facebook page, it is difficult for people to learn about the work of the Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District.

If a referendum for increase is voted down, Jongsma and Morden’s other option is to petition a Cook County Court judge to approve an increase, a lengthy, drawn-out process.

Morden is also looking for grants and other assistance from agencies with an interest in water management, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD). And to save money he has already built relationships with local municipalities and other agencies to help the district dispose of debris and unwanted items pulled out of the ditches, such as televisions and tires.

“Upon doing my inspections throughout the district,” posted Commissioner Jeff Morden on Facebook, “these are just a handful of pictures of what people throw in our waterways. If you see somebody doing this call your local police department.” Clicking the photo will open the post at the Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District Facebook page. (Photo: Jeff Morden)

Rising costs

Failing such an assessment increase, the district’s future is cloudy.

“It cannot stay as it is,” said Jongsma, who has been a district commissioner since the 1980s. “The cost of everything has gone up. An excavator in the 1970s cost $150 per hour; today it costs $650 an hour.”

“Excavation costs a lot of money,” agreed Morden. “We need to do preventative maintenance, and I have a lot of other projects I want to do.”

Lincoln-Lansing
Excavation is one of the most common methods of maintaining the 27 miles of ditches in the Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District. Though the cost of hiring an excavator has more than quadrupled in 96 years, the fee paid by people who benefit from the service has remained at $2 per year. (Photo: Jeff Morden)

Keeping it local

One solution that has been suggested over the years involves disbanding the district and turning its responsibilities over to the MWRD.

Neither Jongsma nor Morden like that idea.

“The assessment for local residents would jump from $2 to $200 per year, and there’s no guarantee the money would be used on the local ditches,” Jongsma said.

Lansing, Sauk Village, and Lynwood are not the only parts of the state formed from drained land. The state says there are more than 800 drainage districts in Illinois. For that reason, said Morden, he wouldn’t like the assessment money just going into the MWRD’s general fund.

Choosing the best option

Jongsma is not overly optimistic about the future of the Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District.

Without an increase in funding, the ditches will continue to deteriorate, and flooding will continue to be a problem as farmland is converted to subdivisions. But explaining what the district does and why a price increase is necessary is tedious phone call by phone call, particularly for an 80-year-old volunteer who would rather be doing the work than explaining the work.

Jongsma’s no-nonsense demeanor and gravelly voice are not likely to curry the favor needed to convince voters that a ten-fold increase is warranted. It takes too long to explain that the choice is not between $2 and $25; it’s really between the $25 that the district needs to serve Lansing, Lynwood, and Sauk Village well — and the $200 that MWRD wants to serve 800 districts.

“People here will get more service for their $25, or less for their $200,” says Jongsma.

He just doesn’t know how to explain that before people see it in a referendum.

For more information on the Lincoln-Lansing Drainage District, contact either of the commissioners:
• Harry Jongsma at 708-259-4156
• Jeff Morden at 708-774-6053

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1 COMMENT

  1. I always thought it was a waste of their resources to send out bills for only $2, the paperwork & postage alone wasn’t worth it. It should’ve been at least $25 all along, then it’s at least worth me writing a check and putting an.60 cent stamp on it.

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