Part-time elected officials can't undo pensions
Grant Wehrli doesn't want a pension for being elected to the Naperville City Council, but thanks to his fellow council members, it looks like he'll get one.
And he won't be alone. From Naperville, there are already four other former council members and one former mayor collecting Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund pensions.
They are among some 42 mostly part-time former aldermen, mayors and clerks from the West and Northwest suburbs who together will receive more than $200,000 this year in retirement benefits simply for holding an elected office for more than eight years, according to a Daily Herald analysis of IMRF benefit records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Last month Wehrli tried to end retirement benefits for the city council, but he was alone in his efforts.
"In my opinion, there's no way you can look at the role of city councilman and find that it's deserving of a lifetime pension," he said.
Critics, and even several current and future beneficiaries, question the practice.
"Only in Illinois would part-time public service come with a lifetime pension," said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of Openthebooks.com, a government finance transparency website and taxpayer advocacy organization based in Elmhurst. "These instances are why the state legislature's recent pension reform didn't go far enough. All these outrageous 'one off' examples add millions to property and sales taxes."
Ending pension benefits for suburban elected officials is not as simple as just wanting out of the system.
"When I got on the council in 2005 I regrettably signed up for a pension," Wehrli said. "Had I known then what I know now, I never would have signed that document."
There is no backing out once you're in the retirement system.
"If they opt to participate, it's irrevocable," said IMRF spokesman John Krupa.
The only way Wehrli could keep from collecting a pension was either to give up his seat on the council or persuade at least four other members of the nine-member body to rescind an ordinance passed years ago that qualified the posts for pensions. Rather than quit, he tried the latter.
He failed. The council voted 8-1 in December to maintain pension benefits for elected officers. Wehrli was the lone dissenting vote on the council's future compensation package.
"It's worse than joining the Marine Corps," Wehrli said. "You can't get out."
Once a municipality declares elected offices are eligible for IMRF pensions, those in office are supposed to put in at least 1,000 hours of work each year to qualify for the benefits. That's roughly 20 hours a week of work.
Occasionally, IMRF officials audit employers to make sure those eligible for the benefit are doing the work. In recent years, many township trustees have had their benefits stopped or stripped after audits concluded they weren't performing the required work. Naperville hasn't been audited since 2007, though one is scheduled for February, Krupa said.
"We do not have any records of any councilmen and their hours," Wehrli said.
Contribution amounts vary depending on salary and service time, but generally IMRF participants contribute 4.5 percent of their salaries to their retirement benefits. Employers also contribute a varying amount each year.
Former Wood Dale alderman Dan Shawke said he was "surprised" to receive a pension check months after he retired last May after nearly 18 years on the city council. He'll receive nearly $2,200 this year from IMRF in $181 monthly installments, according to the agency's records.
"I didn't even realize I was eligible for a pension. It just showed up in the mail," Shawke said. "It's enough to go out to a nice dinner once a month with my wife."
Former Naperville City Councilman Dick Furstenau will receive nearly $2,700 this year. He said he'll use it to pay taxes.
"My IMRF pension goes to the federal government," he said. "Here's what I say about pensions for elected officials: If they're putting in the hours, you should get it."
Furstenau, who was voted out after three 4-year terms, said the workload for councilmen was greater when he was in office and Naperville was experiencing incredible growth because of the housing boom. He's not so sure the current council is as busy.
"It's fair for the people who served during my time because it was nonstop," he said. "The workload for a city councilman in Naperville has gone way down."
Shawke suggested voters could force the council to rescind the benefit, but election authorities said such a vote would only be advisory and nonbinding.
"When it comes to compensation that the aldermen get, I think it should be up to the citizens," Shawke said.
Compensation levels combined with the amount of time served in an elected office determine how much someone receives for a pension. IMRF beneficiaries used to require just eight years to become vested. New rules passed by the legislature three years ago now require 10 years.
"When I'm pension-eligible, I'll donate it to a Naperville charity," Wehrli said.
Of the 42 former municipal officials receiving pensions only for holding elected office in the suburbs, 24 are former village trustees, aldermen or council members who will receive a combined $39,669 this year, according to IMRF records. Another 10 are former suburban mayors or village presidents who will receive a combined $67,573. And there are eight former city or village clerks who will receive $95,401 altogether.
That doesn't include those who received IMRF pensions through their other jobs and were able to boost those benefits by holding elected office.
Among the former clerks receiving a pension is current Round Lake Park Village President Linda Lucassen. Because her $8,500-a-year president's stipend isn't eligible for retirement benefits, she can collect both payments simultaneously.
Lucassen said state law dictated that she sign up for retirement benefits when she served as clerk because she was working too many hours. Her pension is $2,554 this year.
Other former suburban clerks, like former Hanover Park Clerk Sherry Craig, will make almost $32,000 this year in retirement payouts, IMRF records show.
"I was the clerk, the office manager, the collector, and I did all the event coordinating," Lucassen said. "When I ran for clerk I didn't even know I had a salary."
Lucassen said the village would have had to hire someone to take over her additional duties if she opted out of the pension and reduced her workload. That additional employee probably would have cost taxpayers more, Lucassen said.
Besides Naperville, former mayors or village presidents in St. Charles, Wauconda, Bloomingdale, Addison, Lake Zurich, Carol Stream, Oakbrook Terrace, Arlington Heights and Lake in the Hills are also receiving pensions for holding only those posts or once serving as trustees as well, according to IMRF records. Former Wauconda Mayor James Eschenbauch will receive the highest pension among former suburban mayors with a payout of $19,009 this year.
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