Meet Winnebago County's answer lady

Isaac Guerrero

Not sure who your Winnebago County Board member is or when you can burn leaves? Can’t remember where to pay your real estate taxes?

Jean Czerniewski has all the answers.

Every Tuesday for four and a half hours, Czerniewski volunteers her time at the WinCART information desk in the lobby of the Winnebago County administration building, 404 Elm St. From her perch behind the counter, Czerniewski directs people where they need to go and answers a barrage of telephone queries about local government.

“People hate talking to an automated machine,” said Czerniewski, 76. “So you try to be polite and help them as quick as you can. Sometimes, it’s easy to steer them to the right department. And sometimes, I’ll sit and listen to their life story before I can get a word in edgewise.”

Whether Czerniewski is talking or listening, she’s saving taxpayers money while making Winnebago County run more efficiently, said Earl Dotson Jr., the county’s deputy administrator.

WinCART, or Winnebago County Action Response Team, is a telephone hot line Dotson helped establish in 2005. It operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, serving as a one-stop shop for residents who need to reach, or have questions about, government or criminal-justice departments. WinCART can also provide phone numbers for elected officials who represent you in all levels of local government.

The county has budgeted $90,364 to operate WinCART for the 2008 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The money pays for salaries for three part-time employees, advertising and other expenses. Nine volunteers like Czerniewski assist the part-time staff so paid full-timers aren’t needed, Dotson said. Every call to WinCART is recorded and tracked so county officials know which departments have the highest demands for service.

“One of the big problems we had before was that people would call any random county office they had a phone number for to ask a question,” Dotson said. “Some of our employees weren’t sure where to transfer people or how to help them. Now that there’s one number to call, it saves us time for us and the person calling.”

Bill Steinborn didn’t know about WinCART when he called the county’s Health Department last year to report a home in his subdivision with several cars parked on the lawn.

“I live in unincorporated Winnebago County, but I’ve got a Rockford address and a Cherry Valley phone number,” Steinborn said. “I must have called half a dozen departments before I found the right one. A hot line would make things easier, for sure.”

WinCART has handled 22,107 calls — an average of 100 calls a day — from Jan. 1 through Nov. 1 of this year. A bit more than half of those calls were from people with questions about the time and place of a court date. Questions that led callers to the county clerk’s office, which manages marriage licenses, birth certificates and election matters, were second, generating 2,209 calls.

WinCART has saved Connie Hoffman, an office manager in the clerk’s office, lots of time since it was established.

“Before WinCART, I must have answered about 20 phone calls every day between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.,” Hoffman said. “It was mostly for people who forgot when their court date was. People always confuse the clerk’s office with the circuit clerk’s office. We still get a few of those calls, but it’s much less disruptive.”

Czerniewski, who retired from Eagle Foods 11 years ago, also volunteers her time at a local church, nursing home and school. But it’s her work at WinCART that offers immediate rewards.

“I didn’t know this much about local government before I started here,” she said. “Every day, I’m helping people and learning something, too.”

Staff writer Isaac Guerrero can be reached at 815-987-1371 or

By the numbers

Call WinCART, Winnebago County’s telephone hot line for questions about local government and criminal justice departments, at 815-319-4444.

Most calls to WinCART are for public safety-related county departments. Here are the five departments for which people most called WinCART from Jan. 1 to Nov. 15 of this year:

Circuit clerk’s office: 10,322 calls

Clerk’s office: 2,209

Corrections: 962

Public defender: 831

Probation: 744

Source: Winnebago County