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posted: 2/12/2012 12:01 AM

Grilling the candidates about pensions and pay

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In my little corner of the world, this past week was devoted to face-to-face candidate interviews. I met with 16 people seeking the GOP primary nomination for the 5th and 6th Districts and the Democratic nod for the 6th District of the DuPage County Board. Voters next month will elect three candidates in each of those three races. I'm among 22 editors and supervisors going through the process of endorsing candidates for Congress, state legislature and county government.

These sessions serve two important purposes: They allow us to meet the candidates, ask them for their stances on the issues and their priorities for the offices they seek. In my sessions, I'll use that meeting, along with questionnaires the candidates fill out and other news stories, to make a recommendation to our full editorial board on whom we should endorse. The other purpose is to provide the grist for stories.

This past week's sessions produced stories about pensions for county board members, whether to move the county fairgrounds and, on today's front page and online editions, a piece in which the District 6 Democratic candidates debate the matter of county board members' pay. Actually, we talked to all our candidates about pensions and pay. It's a fascinating topic.

County board members are paid $50,000 a year. They're also eligible for a pension after eight years of service. And after 20 years, it vests at 80 percent of the elected official's salary. It's a nice little nest egg, and many of the non-incumbents are pouncing on it as if it were the height of greed; they vow not to take a pension. It all makes for a quick and easy slogan -- "a sound bite" -- is how District 6 GOP candidate Kevin Wiley put it. It goes something like this: Fifty thousand a year and a possible pension -- for a part-time job? That's outrageous.

But there's the rub. Is it really a part-time job? Incumbent Dirk Enger told us he puts in 35 hours a week on county business. We didn't poll all the incumbents for a precise accounting of their time, but all were emphatic that they easily put in the minimum 20 hours per week required to qualify for the pension. And because of that, in some instances, they take a pay cut from their real jobs. For instance, Jim Healy, a District 5 incumbent, says he's paid 20 percent less than other attorneys at his law firm because of the time he spends away from his practice working on county business.

So, it would be easy to vote for the candidates you believe are most sincere about slashing their salaries when they get in office and eliminating those pensions. But then what do you have? Perhaps a lot of wealthy, retired people. And is this the makeup we want on the board representing this rapidly diversifying county of almost 1 million residents? Or do you get people who put in the bare minimum? Not exactly a slam dunk call.

And here's another interesting twist on the pension debate: The incumbents who take one say it's an all-or-nothing situation; one either takes the pension or has no type of government retirement. But virtually everyone seems to agree these days that pensions -- the whole business aside of how horribly underfunded they are at many levels -- are a sweetheart deal found virtually nowhere in private industry.

So what about converting public employees to something similar to what the rest of us have, a 401(k)? Or to make it even more palatable, start with just the elected officials. Healy and others say they'd be just fine with that. Such a swap plan was proposed but, in a shocking development, was shot down in the state legislature.

Maybe next year, huh?

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