McHenry County Board members are considering a proposal to eliminate pensions for future countywide elected officials -- a move Chairman Jack Franks says would encourage healthier turnover and save the county "millions."
The board passed a measure nearly two decades ago allowing elected county leaders to participate in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, as long as they put in 1,000 hours per year.
While preparing the salaries and benefits portion of next year's proposed budget, however, Franks said he found a "perfect opportunity" to cut county expenses in the long-run. His proposal would end IMRF eligibility for the board chairman and eight other elected officials: state's attorney, coroner, clerk, circuit clerk, auditor, recorder, treasurer and sheriff.
The move would not be effective until the end of their terms.
"I've always said there can be no sacred cows when it comes to bringing our nightmarish property taxes under control," Franks said. "I promised taxpayers that I would demolish the status quo."
County board members opted out of the pension fund last year amid an IMRF investigation into whether they met the 1,000-hour requirement. The probe was sparked by inquiries from Franks, a state representative at the time.
In this case, Franks said he is not questioning whether countywide officials work enough hours. Rather, he says, retirement benefits intended for public employees should not apply to politicians.
"People elected to serve the public should not be eligible for perks that the public is not," Franks said.
The board's human services committee is expected to discuss the measure Wednesday. If approved, the proposal likely would be considered by the full county board in mid-October.
Board member John Jung, chairman of the human resources committee, said eliminating pensions for elected leaders seems to be a logical progression, especially with the county board's recent push to lower property taxes.
In addition to saving money, he said, the measure also could dissuade officials from staying in office term after term, as was the case with several recent retirees.
Recent retirees include Phyllis Walters, who served three decades as recorder before retiring last year. She receives an annual pension of $78,207, plus a $24,967 survivor benefit, according to IMRF records. Also, Lou Bianchi, state's attorney for 12 years, dropped his 2016 re-election bid. He now collects a $33,777 annual pension.
"I don't think these jobs were ever meant to be careers," Jung said. "Everybody talks about term limits, and without the pension, I don't think you have to worry about that."
Eliminating the pension wouldn't have stopped Walters from seeking re-election, she said, but it was "certainly a good benefit." She maxed out her pension benefits during her stint as recorder and still ran for office the following term.
Walters also believes there are advantages to having the same leader elected for multiple terms, as long as that person is running the office fairly and efficiently, she said.
"It takes a little knowledge and time to understand what's going on. If people keep electing them and they're doing a good job, you want to keep them. If they're not, you'll vote them out," she said. "You want good people to run."
Circuit Clerk Kathy Keefe, who is enrolled in IMRF, said elected positions that focus heavily on record-keeping, like hers, often are filled by people who have been working in that office -- and subsequently accruing pension credit -- for years. Being required to bow out of the pension fund if elected to the office's top seat "definitely might discourage people from running in the future," Keefe said.
Franks' response: "If it does, then they shouldn't be running for it in the first place."
The resolution will not eliminate any IMRF credit already accrued by officials, Franks said. And there's nothing stopping them from contributing to 401(k)-style plans, he added.
State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally, elected last year, participates in the IMRF program. He said he was unaware of Franks' proposal and declined to comment.
Recorder Joe Tirio, who is running for clerk next year, decided not to participate in the pension fund, saying he would rather have a retirement plan similar to a defined contribution plan offered in the private sector.
"I shouldn't ask the people to pay for such a plan. It's not very respectful of the taxpayers," Tirio said. "Frankly, if you look at the mess the state is in financially ... it's hard to imagine a place where the math works out in a good way where we can continue to pay for these pension plans at the rate we have been."
Franks, Coroner Anne Majewski and Sheriff Bill Prim also opted out of the IMRF program.