Taxpayers spent more than $1 million last year to cover health care benefits for 77 elected leaders in suburban townships.
Those same officials paid nothing for their insurance coverage.
An investigation of insurance costs for 50 suburban townships showed 29 offered health care coverage at no charge to elected officers who held full-time positions like supervisor, assessor and highway commissioner.
Four townships -- Addison, Downers Grove and Naperville in DuPage County as well as Leyden in Cook County -- even offered free coverage to trustees, whose main responsibility is to appear at a dozen or so meetings a year.
"That's ridiculous," said McHenry Township Supervisor Donna Schaefer, whose township offers health care benefits to full-time elected officials but requires them to cover some of the costs. "That's what gives township government a bad name."
The total combined bill to taxpayers in those 29 townships was $1,013,589 in 2010.
The Daily Herald obtained the information through a series of open-records requests to the townships in six Chicago-area counties.
The effect on taxpayers is different from place to place.
In Naperville Township, nonelected employees were forced to begin contributing to their health care costs the same year trustees approved free health care coverage for themselves and other elected leaders.
Some Maine Township trustees receive health care benefits worth nearly five times their annual $5,172 salaries.
Coverage for four elected officials was responsible for more than 60 percent of Fremont Township's $119,268 total health care costs in 2010.
National studies indicate it's becoming more uncommon with each passing year for employers to offer health care coverage at no cost to employees.
Offering the free benefit to trustees at all has become even more rare over the years as townships tighten their belts. However, some township officials defend the practice.
"I'm somewhat surprised some of the larger townships wouldn't be offering it to trustees for what we do and the amount of hours we put in," said Maine Township Trustee Peter Gialamas, who pays a portion of his coverage.
Ending the perk
Some taxpayers are taking a stand.
In Naperville Township, where both full-time elected officials and part-time trustees take advantage of the free health care coverage, Kurt Dorr is championing a proposal that would ask voters if they want to stop covering health care costs for trustees.
"I think it's a waste," said Dorr, a Republican precinct committeeman. "I feel like it's a theft from taxpayers."
On Tuesday, Naperville Township residents can vote at the township's annual meeting whether to put the issue on the November ballot. The meeting is slated for 7:30 p.m. at the township's highway department offices located at 31W331 North Aurora Road, just west of Route 59. Any registered voters from Naperville Township may participate.
Several elected township officials say they're on board with the idea and claim they are as eager as Dorr for the practice to end, though nothing's stopping them from doing it themselves.
"We are going to put that on the agenda," said Fred Spitzzeri, a two-term trustee. "My motion will be to do away with health care benefits for trustees, and other elected officials should pay as well. I thought this was a benefit all employees got."
But it's not.
Up until about six years ago Naperville Township employees did receive free health care coverage. That all changed when elected officials started getting it for free, employees there said and Spitzzeri confirmed. Since then, township employees have had to pay 10 to 15 percent of the premium, according to documents sent from the township. During that same time, Spitzzeri has cost taxpayers $110,000 for his coverage, the records show.
Spitzzeri defended the perk.
"To a certain extent these jobs are what you put into them," he said. "We've been very fiscally responsible. We cut insurance and salary benefits for the elected officials by $200,000 last year. You can always criticize someone by line item, but in general, we've been very frugal and fiscally responsible."
The combined cost of health insurance coverage for Naperville Township's eight elected officials was 31 percent of the organization's $396,000 insurance spending in 2010, according to the documentation.
"For part-time positions in governments to be granted benefits merely because they have the authority raises the question of whether they're really in tune with the taxpayers," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based government accountability organization and think tank.
Elsewhere in DuPage County, Addison Township Trustee Gus Leventis and Downers Grove Township Trustee Williams Swanston received $8,300 and $1,800 worth of insurance coverage free in 2010, respectively.
In Cook County, Leyden Township trustees Ron Klinger and Marilynn May each received free coverage to the tune of about $7,500 in costs to taxpayers in 2010.
Trustees in Cook County's Wheeling, Schaumburg and Maine townships also took advantage of health care coverage, but had to pay some of the premium.
Trustees in Kane County's Aurora Township and Lake County's Fremont Township also take advantage of taxpayer-supported health care coverage.
"We do pride ourselves on fiscal responsibility," said Maine Township's Gialamas, who paid for about 5 percent of his $24,461 township insurance premium in 2010. "We don't spend money we don't have."
Even the unpaid collector's post in Maine Township received the same health care coverage as the trustee, records show.
The full-time elected supervisor, assessor, highway commissioner and clerk have access to taxpayer-supported health care coverage in most of the 50 townships surveyed.
Only a few don't offer coverage.
Elected officials in Cook County's Palatine Township could receive the health care benefit if they were willing to pay the full premium. Clerk Lisa Moran said that's been the practice as long as she's been there and there's never been discussion to change the policy.
"I would say it's because Palatine Township has historically been a fiscally conservative unit of government and remains so today," she said. "We would never consider it with this board."
In Kane County's more rural western townships like Rutland, Virgil, Big Rock and Hampshire, no one receives health care coverage.
The idea of elected officials receiving free health care coverage is archaic in the insurance industry. According to a national employment poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year, only 5 percent of the country's employers offered family coverage at no cost to employees. Only 16 percent of employers -- which included local and state governments -- offered free single coverage. Insurance experts believe the percentage would be lower if government employers were taken out of the equation.
The poll also showed the average cost to American workers for single coverage in 2010 was 19 percent of the premium. Workers pay an average of 30 percent of the premium for family coverage. The foundation is a nonprofit health care research institute based in California.
The data is not surprising to insurance experts, who also claim it benefits employees to pay something toward their insurance coverage.
"They have a little skin in the game then," said Tom Manno, an Oak Brook insurance broker. "Free coverage is a rarity in the private sector these days. It's sad that we need a crazy recession like this for people to wake up and see what the government is really spending our money on."
Watchdog groups suggest ending taxpayer-supported health care benefits for all elected township posts.
"They shouldn't be offering it at all to elected people," said Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America, based in Chicago. "That's something that shouldn't be paid for by taxpayers. This is the reason why our taxes are so ... high."
Townships are not alone in offering these types of health care perks to elected officials, but the practice is coming under fire and being increasingly scrutinized.
State Sen. Terry Link didn't single out townships in his bill calling for a special commission to be empaneled to cut or consolidate some of the state's nearly 7,000 governmental entities.
"But you know who were the first ones to complain about the bill? The townships," the Waukegan Democrat said. "The bill doesn't mention anything about townships, but there they were putting up a fight."
Spending taxpayer money to pay for health care coverage for elected officials adds fuel to the argument, critics say.
Township officials say they do plenty for residents and are more than the political party proving grounds that critics make them out to be.
"There are places where there are no townships and the work done there costs more money to taxpayers," Naperville Township Supervisor Gary Vician said.
Vician points to the social services townships provide for the poor and elderly. Most townships run food pantries as well as transportation programs for senior citizens.
Link said townships were designed to be the local government for rural areas that didn't have easily accessible or nearby local government. That's not the case anymore, he said.
Offering free health care perks to elected officials may not win much support from taxpayers, watchdog groups warn township leaders.
"That is not something that is traditional in the private sector, or even modern governments," the Civic Federation's Msall said. "Most health care experts will tell you requiring co-payments is an important way of not just balancing costs, but appropriate utilization of those benefits."