Nearly 900 township assessors and county assessment officials in Illinois are eligible for a $3,000 yearly bonus -- just for doing their jobs right.
The "performance stipend" costs taxpayers upward of $650,000 a year in a state that's so broke it's at least $5.8 billion behind in paying its bills, according to the state comptroller's office.
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An analysis of comptroller financial records shows 16 of 50 suburban township assessors throughout six counties have gotten the bonus so far this year. However, the year's not over, and Illinois Department of Revenue officials who administer the bonuses said more assessment officials could still receive the stipend.
The money also counts toward assessors' pensions, which helps boost their retirement benefits and costs township taxpayers even more over the long haul.
"I think that's something that's going to be phased out," said state Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican who is also assessor in Lake County's Fremont Township and who has not received the bonus in any of the last three years. "There is no doubt that the whole thing is incentivizing."
Suburban assessors qualify for the bonus if township properties are assessed at a third of their actual value -- something required by state statute -- and sales of properties during the year don't vary more than 15 percent from the assessed values.
Township assessors in Cook County aren't eligible for the bonuses because they don't assess property. The county assessor handles that work.
"I don't know why there are additional tax dollars necessary for incentives for those people to do the job they were elected to do in the first place, particularly at a time when government at any level is saddled by debt," said David From, Illinois state director of Americans for Prosperity, a national economic reform advocacy group.
"I don't know how many Illinois taxpayers would think it's good practice."
The bonus, each year it's received, also adds several hundred dollars to the amount township taxpayers have to pony up toward the assessor's pension plan.
Since Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund employer contribution rates vary among townships and change from one year to the next, taxpayers are on the hook for different amounts if their assessor receives the bonus.
Lisle Township Assessor John Trowbridge's bonus will cost taxpayers there an extra $410.70, according to IMRF records. Meanwhile, Wheatland Township Assessor Kelli Lord's bonus will cost her Will County constituents $281.10 this year.
The bonus also inflates the assessor's future pension, which is based on salary.
Among the 50 suburban townships surveyed, the assessors average a salary of about $80,000 a year. Several assessors in DuPage County make six-figure salaries without the bonus.
"This is a way of giving people raises without legally giving them a raise," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat.
"That's why we should take this away and let the township trustees make that judgment on their own."
The bonuses were created by the Illinois legislature in 1984 to increase the quality of assessment work, revenue department spokeswoman Sue Hofer said.
At the time, assessors weren't required to undergo the certification process that exists today, assessment officials said.
"It was a form of inducement to go get educated," said Naperville Township Assessor Warren Dixon. "We're probably now to the point where we have enough required training.
"But there's nothing wrong with the stipends. I think it's an excellent thing to induce training."
Dixon is one of about a dozen suburban assessors who have received the stipend for at least the past three consecutive years, according to comptroller records. He believes it shows residents he is doing a good job. He is also the highest-paid among suburban assessors with an annual salary of $118,500 before the bonus.
"I have always received the stipend because of the accuracy of my assessments," he said. "Because the market is all over the place, our accuracy levels could be way off these days."
Assessor Bob Earl of Milton Township in DuPage County is another who has received the bonus regularly, but he's not the biggest fan of the program.
"I think any time you have one form of government paying another government agency money, there's a problem," he said.
"The system is designed by politicians for bureaucrats."
But what about the work done by assessors who don't qualify for the bonus? Those assessors are quick to defend their assessment practices.
"If you look at the number of communities that have foreclosures and short sales, you'll understand why it's hard to qualify these days," said Elgin Township Assessor Steven Surnicki.
"Until I right the ship I don't expect to get the stipend. Being elected is enough incentive to do the job."
DuPage County Supervisor of Assessments Craig Dovel said it's no surprise there are fewer assessors qualifying for the bonus.
Twenty-seven suburban assessors received the bonus in 2010, 21 in 2011 and just 16 so far this year. The trend statewide is similar. In 2008, 217 assessment officials received the bonus while only 163 received it in 2011.
"In some areas it's extremely hard because if you have only three or four sales, you can see wide fluctuations in the market," he said.
What is surprising to some is that after two years of reduced funding because of the state's financial problems, the bonuses were fully restored this year.
Revenue department officials said bonuses were reduced to $1,875 in 2010 and $1,200 in 2011.
This year, the legislature voted to change the funding source for the stipends from the state's general revenue fund to the corporate personal property replacement tax fund.
That tax is collected by the state from businesses for use by local governments.
Sullivan said the move does little to lift the burden from taxpayers.
"By shifting this to the personal property replacement taxes, the state is shifting the burden onto local units of government who rely on those funds for other purposes," he said.
Despite the state still owing billions of dollars in unpaid bills, the stipend program has already cost taxpayers $348,000 so far this year, according to comptroller records.
"The state certainly is not in any better fiscal position," From said.
"This should be pretty high on the list of programs that are not needed."