DuPage County Board members recently had a rare opportunity to help eliminate a controversial perk for themselves: pensions.
Instead, they quietly opted to keep the publicly funded retirement benefit, the Daily Herald and Better Government Association have learned.
"In the end, a majority of the board decided it was appropriate to keep the benefit," said county board member John Curran, a Woodridge Republican, who said he lobbied board members to end their pensions.
Aside from making $50,000 a year, the part-time board members qualify for health insurance and have the option to enroll in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, the state's second-largest pension fund with $25 billion in assets.
To qualify for the retirement benefit, the elected officials are expected to perform at least 1,000 hours of county-related work annually for eight years. But unlike other county employees, they don't have to prove they meet the requirement -- their word is good enough. Neither the IMRF nor the county requires that they document their time.
But there are questions as to how some members fulfill that annual requirement, equivalent to roughly 20 hours a week. A recent BGA investigation found that some board members missed about a third of county board and committee meetings in the first nine months of the year.
Board members aren't required to enroll in IMRF, but once they do, they can't withdraw unless they leave office, says John Krupa, an IMRF spokesman. Yet, there is a way for the entire board to, in effect, kill the benefit.
DuPage County was audited by the IMRF, beginning in June 2010. As part of that ongoing process, IMRF distributed what's known as a "6.93-form," asking the county's board members to confirm that their office-related duties consume at least 1,000 hours a year.
The audit was described as fairly routine, but there was a lot more at stake.
In an email, Krupa explains: "If the majority of elected officials from a governing body decline to submit form 6.93, IMRF would begin the process of removing any members of that governing body who are currently participating in IMRF."
In other words, if at least 10 county board members didn't sign and submit the document, it would have paved the way for the current slate of participating board members to lose their pension eligibility.
The board also would have had to pass a resolution indicating their positions no longer met the 1,000-hour requirement. Once that happened, the position would be "ineligible for IMRF participation going forward," Krupa wrote.
But it never came to that.
Instead, 12 board members rejected the chance to give up their pensions, submitting signed forms to IMRF in October, Krupa confirmed.
IMRF identified the signees as Grant Eckhoff of Wheaton; Paul Fichtner of Elmhurst; Rita Gonzalez of Addison; James Healy of Naperville; Brian Krajewski of Downers Grove; Michael McMahon of Hinsdale; Debra Olson of Wheaton; Patrick O'Shea of Lombard; Donald Puchalski of Addison; Brien Sheahan of Elmhurst; James Zay of Carol Stream; and John Zediker of Naperville.
Beside Curran, JR McBride of Glen Ellyn and Jeff Redick of Elmhurst didn't sign the form, even though all three participate in IMRF, according to Krupa.
Also not signing the form were three board members who previously decided not to participate in the pension program: Dirk Enger of Winfield; Robert Larsen of Warrenville; and Anthony Michelassi of Aurora.
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin participates in IMRF. He didn't sign the form, his spokeswoman confirms, but IMRF doesn't consider him part of the 18-member board, therefore his action had no affect on the pension outcome.
IMRF covers about 3,000 governments, and doesn't audit the same one every year, so the county board will have to wait an undetermined period to revisit the pension issue. That's fine with some officials who say they put in more than 1,000 hours annually and are entitled to a pension.
Most board members work full-time jobs, in addition to serving on the county board.
"My law practice suffers because of the work I do for the county," Puchalski said. "It has an impact on my ability to earn income."
Adds board member Healy, "You give up all those hours, you give up opportunities for income. All I'm looking for is something to level the playing field."
Participating board members contribute 7.5 percent of their annual salary, or roughly $3,750 a year. But DuPage County taxpayers shoulder a significant load -- in fiscal year 2011 the county paid IMRF $352,997 to cover board member-related pension obligations, according to a county board spokeswoman.
The size of those pensions depends on several factors. DuPage County Board members participate in ECO, or the "elected county official" program, part of IMRF. Under that program, they become vested after eight years, and after 20 years current board members would be eligible to receive 80 percent of their final year's salary. For instance, a member age 55 or older who served for 20 years and was paid $50,000 a year during that period would collect an annual pension starting at $40,000.
Board member Zediker says he understands why some people don't believe the part-time position warrants a pension. But rather than the roundabout way board members would have had to kill their own pensions, he said the initiative should come from state lawmakers.
"But this is a larger issue than us," he says. "If our intention is to say we don't deserve pensions, let's go about it differently."