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13 Investigates: Why Rockford denies most pothole damage claims for drivers

ROCKFORD (WREX) — Every year, tens of thousands of potholes pop-up on Rockford streets and they can cause hundreds, even thousands of dollars worth of damage to your car.

The city has a way to reimburse you for that damage. Except, most people who apply for it, don’t see a dime.

“We pay taxes and this is what we get. I think it’s totally unfair,” said Ernie Pohl of Rockford.

Pohl says this year the potholes in Rockford are unavoidable. That’s how he says his wife’s 2015 Chevy Malibu ended up with four damaged tires.

“This cost me $700 to get tires changed in the car. Not to my fault whatsoever,” he said.

Retired and on a fixed income, Pohl thought the city should pay for the damage. He submitted a claim for reimbursement from the city’s risk management fund.
Karen Ippen’s husband has a similar story.

“He was driving down Rural Street to work and he hit this huge pothole,” said Ippen. “And there was a big slit on the side wall.”

Ippen also submitted a claim to the city, but neither she nor Pohl would get reimbursed. Their claims were denied. And they’re not alone.

13 Investigates filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found out that over the past two years the city has received 224 claims for pothole reimbursement. We asked Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara if he knew how many of those 224 claims were approved.

“I’d say maybe 3% to 10% are covered?” he guessed.

In fact, that number is much lower. It’s one. Not percent, just one claim has been approved for reimbursement for a grand total of $134.08. So why are so many claims denied? Most of them , 121, were denied all for the same reason. Because the city said it had no prior notice the potholes even existed. The same reason Ippen and Pohl’s claims were denied.

“We have to have some reasonable amount of time once we’re aware of it, to fill it. If we do not fill it once we’re made aware of it, then that claim could be substantiated,” said McNamara.

McNamara says the city follows state law for pothole claims, which he says protects the taxpayer, since it’s their money that makes up the risk management fund.

“I think I would be more shocked if we were willy-nilly paying out claims left and right that really didn’t meet the criteria by law,” he said.

What is the law for pothole reimbursement? First, the city has to know a pothole exists. Then it has a certain amount of time, typically 72 hours, to fill it. If your car is damaged after those 72 hours then you have to prove that specific pothole is what caused damage to your car.

“It’s good that we have the claims process. Unfortunately, we don’t pay a lot of claims because the deck is stacked in our favor through the state laws,” said Rockford attorney Kerry Partridge.

We asked Partridge why bother with a claims process at all if virtually no one benefits from it?

“It’s very convenient for the citizen because otherwise you’d have to sue us in court,” he said.

The city says it’s one of the only municipalities in the state to offer a claims process. And Mayor McNamara says while he’s not surprised at how few claims are paid out, he is surprised the city doesn’t get more of them. And that it pales in comparison to the thousands of potholes reported to the city.

“The numbers you show is actually more a credit to the staff doing a job that 146,800 people want them to do and go out and fill those potholes, ” he said.

Pohl doesn’t see it that way. He said the holes shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and that the burden shouldn’t be on the taxpayer to let the city know where the potholes are.

“There are all kinds of Rockford vehicles out there. And then they leave it up to the citizens to report the potholes. But they know good and well what’s going on,” he said.

Both he and Ippen say if their car is ever damaged by a pothole again they likely won’t bother filing a claim. They assume it won’t get paid.

Sixty-nine other claims in the past two years were denied for various reasons. The city says it’s either because Rockford didn’t own the road, construction was going on at the time or the claimant didn’t follow up with the request. Thirty-four other claims made this year are still being investigated.

If you have a story you want 13 Investigates to look into, call our tip line at 815-335-7890.

Kristin Crowley

Evening News Anchor
Kristin Crowley anchors the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news. She is also a reporter for 13 Investigates. She brings more than a decade of experience to the newsroom. Her work at WREX has earned her multiple awards including a regional Edward R. Murrow for Investigative Journalism and three regional Emmys.

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