While most American workers have spent the past four years getting by on stagnant -- or declining -- wages, some elected township officials were getting automatic raises.
The officials in 31 suburban townships combined to make $661,387 more this year than they did four years ago, a nearly 10 percent pay bump over that period, according to financial records provided by the townships.
In many cases, the elected officials gave themselves the raises and they're getting ready to do it again.
Most township boards have until November to grant themselves raises for next year, and some already have done so.
The eight elected officers in St. Charles Township stand to make a total of $240,622 this year, a 13.5 percent spike above their combined 2009 salary total of $212,081. As in most townships, the lion's share goes to the supervisor, assessor and highway commissioner. Clerks also receive a salary, and four part-time trustees, whose main job is to show up to 12 meetings a year, also receive small stipends.
"The economy was shaky in 2008, but we didn't know it was going to be like it turned out," said John Arthur Anderson, supervisor of St. Charles Township.
Anderson was a trustee in 2008 when the board voted on the elected officials' salaries for the coming four years.
He expects the board will be more frugal this time, but the township's elected officers should expect to be paid more than they are now by the end of the next 4-year term.
"We have not formally decided, but it was discussed having no increase next year, then minor increases in the years after," he said.
State law requires township boards set the salaries for elected positions 180 days before swearing in the winners of the next election. In this case, the election is April 9, 2013. That gives most suburban townships until November, at the latest, to set the salaries for elected officials for the next four years who will take office in late April or early May.
Wauconda Township Supervisor Glenn Swanson, who is seeking re-election, voted July 18 to give his current post an $11,000 raise, to $65,504 next year.
His salary and the others then will be frozen for two years, followed by 3 percent pay hikes for supervisor, assessor and highway commissioner in each of the subsequent two years.
"A study was done, it was done by myself, and what the board decided to do was equalize the supervisor's salary with the assessor and road commissioner," Swanson said. "I'm at a point where fair is fair and equal is equal, and based on the size of the township, the general assistance cases and all that, the average salary is $68,000 in Lake County for township supervisor."
The vote doesn't sit well with Wauconda Township resident Michael Hennessy, a longtime critic of the township.
"I think it's inconceivable that seven years ago this was a part-time job with no benefits and now he's making this money and full benefits," Hennessy said. "This was never meant to be a full-time position in this township or any township."
Hennessy isn't the only taxpayer who has voiced concerns about township government in recent years. The form of government has come under fire from some Illinois legislators who question the need for townships in modern government.
Township officials contend they provide many social services for poor families and senior citizens that are ignored or underfunded by other levels of government. But critics argue many of the duties townships have taken on come with no mandate from the state or voters.
"You have to look at each township and see what services they're offering," said Dan Venturi, Lake Villa Township supervisor. "In our community, we do have a lot of support. Our community is pretty happy with us."
Lake Villa Township's board voted unanimously in April to increase salaries of elected officials about 2 percent in each of the final two years of the officeholders' upcoming 4-year term, according to minutes from the meeting.
Of 46 suburban townships surveyed in six counties, Wayne, Winfield, Milton and Warren township boards have also approved salary hikes for some or all of the elected officials over the next four years.
Warren Township Trustee Mike Semmerling was one of two trustees who voted against the pay hikes for elected officials.
"I own a company and our employees have struggled," he said. "I just felt passing along the pay increases as we have in the past wasn't right. The elected officials should reflect what the private sector is doing."
And because the private sector is not doling out raises much anymore, township boards like Antioch, Bloomingdale, Downers Grove, Hanover, Libertyville, Wheeling and York have frozen salaries for elected officials for the next four years.
"It was in the best interest of the township and we think those salaries are fair and reasonable," said Bloomingdale Township Supervisor Ed Levato, who noted salaries have been frozen at the current rate for eight years now.
However, the salaries for Bloomingdale Township's elected officials total $313,680, about $100,000 more than the average of the 46 townships surveyed.
"It is a job," Levato said. "It is a livelihood and someone's got to run the apparatus of government. I'm a lawyer and I give up a lot of money to do this job as supervisor because I'm interested in my community."
Legal experts say there is not much recourse for voters living in townships that have already approved salary hikes.
"The citizens don't have any binding powers to do anything post-hike," said Maryam Judar, a community lawyer at the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center. "They can appeal to the representatives if there are rules or procedures of that governing body to rescind that resolution."
Township officials also don't have to accept the raises. The current batch of elected officials in Avon Township rejected pay hikes approved by a previous board four years ago. It was one of their campaign promises. The move cost the officials $58,000 over four years.
But it's not as easy as it sounds. The officials are required by law to be paid that amount. Township Clerk Lisa Rusch said the eight officials then gave back the raises to the township.
"In the first three years we gave it back to the food pantry," Rusch said. "This past year (Supervisor Sam) Yingling took applications and used the money to help pay property taxes of some of the residents who were having trouble."
Rusch said the township board hasn't set the salary schedule for the next four years but expects they will actually lower some the salaries below the levels officeholders are currently accepting.