Retiring Jo Daviess County CCAO Donna Berlage is pictured here with (left to right) Mark Armstrong, Kane County CCAO; Wendy Ryerson, Lee County CCAO; Donna; Annette Gruhn, Carroll County CCAO; Robin Brands, Whiteside County CCAO; and Larry Wilson, Rock Island County CCAO.
The Gazette, Galena, Illinois, Wednesday, July 31, 2019
by Hillary Dickerson
GALENA – In her 44 years of service to Jo Daviess County, Chief Assessment Officer Donna Berlage has experienced a few changes. Now, as she prepares to pack up her career in county government and head into retirement, she's reflecting on over four decades of service and many of the wonderful people she encountered du1ing that time.
Berlage started her career in the county recorder's office in March 1975. A 1973 graduate of Galena High School, Berlage worked prior to embarking on her county journey, for Eaton Corporation in Hanover as a line inspector.
Hired by then clerk Carl Schoenhard, Berlage worked in the back-office recording deeds, mortgages and other documents. Those were the days of handwriting and microfilming. When Schoenhard left office, Berlage worked under Ralph Schoenfeld and later Pam Miller.
Then, in July 1988, Berlage switched offices and moved to assessments. At the time, Bill Whippo, who had served as supervisor, passed away, and when Berlage started, she worked with Faye Hasken, who hired her, and Nancy Miller.
Never would Berlage have dreamed that decades later she'd still be working for the county. An even bigger stretch for her would have been to imagine that she'd.be the one in charge.
"I didn't expect I would be here this long," she noted.
The assessment office, at that time, was located near the front entrance of the courthouse, where the county administrator's office is now. It was a tiny space with filing cabinets everywhere. And there was one computer, tucked in a corner, for office staff to share.
“Now you can't survive without a computer at your desk," said Berlage of perhaps one of the most noticeable changes.
Assessment office staff, including Berlage, had hard copy record cards that were filled out entirely by hand. Assessors went out in the field and checked the properties, but the assessment office entered all the values and other information.
"It was a long process," she said, noting there were the same number of parcels there are currently but not as many houses.
She wonders now how all the work got done with three staff members. "Times have changed," Berlage reflected, pointing out the computer system that encompasses all aspects of assessment work and allows the township assessors access as well. "It's totally different than when I first started."
Mike Doyle eventually served as supervisor of assessments, and then when he left, Ron Kane, who's now in Stephenson County, took over before Miller, who had several years in as chief deputy. Miller pushed for the assessment office to relocate to a large space.
When Miller opted to retire in 2004, Berlage said, it seemed like the right time for Berlage to move up. The office, by then in the current location down the hall from the original office, was remodeled when Berlage took over. By then she knew the inner workings of the office and was ready for a new opportunity.
As Berlage looks back on her service and considers what she'll miss about her work, it's the people who come to mind first and foremost. From members of the public to co-workers, Berlage met all sorts of people during her time in county government.
As one would expect, some of those people weren't very happy about their tax bills. When the state changed how farmland is assessed, Berlage encountered many unhappy timber owners who blamed Berlage's office. That stressful time is one she'd rather forget, but it showed her that many people don't understand how the assessor's office works.
No one likes paying taxes, Berlage said, herself included, but the money for services has to come from somewhere. It was always her goal and the mission of her staff-to ensure taxpayers were assessed fairly. If there are concerns, Berlage said, the place to voice them is with the taxing bodies, the people who decide how the tax dollars are spent.
Berlage's co-workers grew to be her extended family and she's grateful for those close relationships. She'll miss seeing those people on a daily basis; she won't miss the night meetings nearly as much.
"It's going to be a huge adjustment for me," she admitted of what's ahead in retirement.
Berlage's husband of 44 years, Ron, passed away a year ago. Now, in retirement, Berlage plans to work with her son to continue Ron's International Harvester parts mail order business that he started more than a dozen years ago.
Berlage, who lives on a piece of the farm she grew up on, which has been in the family more than 100 years, also hopes to spend more time outdoors, gardening and hiking. She enjoys baking and decorating cakes and would love to find time to travel to some of the national parks she and Ron intended to visit but didn't fit in before his death.
As Berlage moves on, she feels confident that her chief deputy, Laura Edmonds, will do a fine job as acting chief assessment officer until a permanent replacement is named.