Township lobbying staff receiving public pensions

Though it's funded almost entirely by townships out of their tax collections, the lobbying association of the state's townships is not subject to public scrutiny of its finances.

Yet, the four-member staff of Township Officials of Illinois receives public pensions — a fact that riles some suburban state and township leaders, and even some on the organization's own board of directors

“I disagree with that entirely,” said McHenry Township Supervisor Donna Schaefer. “For the amount of educational opportunities they make available to us, I'm going to say I think the organization is important. But I don't believe it warrants a public pension.”

Agency officials defend the retirement package they receive through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

“It's not a public pension, per se,” said Bryan E. Smith, executive director of the Springfield-based group. “It's not funded by the state or anything.”

Yet, the benefits are still largely funded by tax dollars. That's because the township group is funded almost entirely through annual dues paid by 1,428 of the 1,432 townships in the state, and by fees charged to township officials for clinics, seminars, conferences and workshops.

For every dollar employees at the township group contribute to their pension, the organization contributes a little more than $3 more, according to the IMRF's contribution formulas. This year, the employee contribution rate is 4.5 percent of his or her salary and the organization rate is 15.04 percent of the combined salaries, IMRF officials said.

With combined salaries of $304,104.80 this year, the four will pay $13,684.72 toward their collective pensions. Meanwhile, another $45,737.36 will be contributed on their behalf through the organization, according to IMRF data. The employees will also be eligible for Social Security when they retire, unlike some other state pensioners, such as teachers.

“I do not agree with it,” said Bob Miller, Algonquin Township's highway commissioner and third vice president of the Township Officials of Illinois executive board. “I'm sure it will come up at our next meeting. I've already heard some grumbling.”

Miller is the lone suburban representative of the group's executive board. However, suburban townships have a large stake in the group's funding.

Dues are based on a formula using the population of the township and the assessed value of property there. So densely populated townships in the suburbs, like Naperville and Downers Grove townships, paid the maximum of $1,283.94 in dues this year. The less urban McHenry Township paid $990.95, and Orchard Township in far downstate Wayne County, with its population of about 550, paid about $80 this year, the lowest.

The organization also makes money by offering classes. In Libertyville Township, Supervisor Kathleen O'Connor said the budget calls for spending nearly $5,000 a year on conferences and training seminars, most of which are conducted by TOI.

Outside of salaries, pension costs and a $30,000 fee the state organization pays to a national group, that's about all the public knows about the group's spending practices. Details don't have to be made public about the cost of a group-commissioned study that claims township governmental entities are among the most frugal in the state, nor about a six-month contract awarded to a public relations firm.

Township organization officials declined to provide the information. A court decision more than two decades ago declared organizations like TOI as nonpublic entities, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office.

“We are an organization that represents the townships here in Springfield and watches out for their interests in legislation that is good or bad,” Smith said.

But because they are using tax dollars to do that work, some legislators argue they should be watching out for the interest of taxpayers instead of townships.

Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo said the state township organization has historically fought legislative proposals that would save taxpayers money by eliminating some township programs. In the organization's most recent newsletter, it offers a rundown of its positions on pending legislation. It is opposing legislation that would eliminate highway commissioner and assessor positions in Cook County, dissolve Evanston Township and limit property tax levy hikes.

“What they're doing is using taxpayer dollars to lobby for higher taxes,” Franks said. “It's not counterintuitive, it's just wrong. They shouldn't in any matter be getting pensions out of this.”

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