How some county board members are already collecting public pensions

Most people have to wait until they're out of a job to begin collecting retirement benefits they accrued while working there.

That's not the case for at least 13 part-time suburban county board members who are receiving as much as $82,124 in annual pension payouts from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund for jobs in which they're still getting salaries of $21,000 to $43,018.

Six Lake County Board members are receiving the pensions, as are three each in McHenry and Will counties and one in Kane County, a Daily Herald examination of IMRF beneficiaries shows. A fourth Will County board member just filed paperwork this month to begin collecting his pension while still on the board and receiving a $23,000 annual salary, IMRF officials noted in a response to a public records request to the agency.

"By its very definition these are retirement benefits, which means you should get them when you've stopped working, not while you're still getting paid for that job," said Democratic state Sen. Terry Link of Indian Creek.

The county elected officials, plus some township and municipal elected leaders, say they're following all the rules. They get the retirement benefit while still working as a result of a 2016 law aimed at pension reform, which eliminated their ability to keep working toward a pension if they don't provide documentation proving they worked at least 1,000 hours a year, or about 19 hours a week.

Many elected leaders chose not to submit timesheets and were kicked out of the retirement plan - but their previous participation in the plan allowed them to begin collecting their pensions even though they were still on the job.

"What's happening right now is outrageous," said Democratic state Rep. Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove. "They're exploiting a loophole in the system that allows them to artificially inflate their earnings."

Didech is the House sponsor of Link's bill that was recently approved in the Senate calling for elected officials' salaries to be withheld if they are receiving an IMRF pension.

The elected county officials say it's no loophole.

"I followed the rules and now they want to change the rules," said Lake County Board member Judy Martini. "They're introducing legislation that affects everybody else but themselves."

Link specifically went after the salaries because the state constitution prevents any diminishment of public pensions by lawmakers, so the lawmakers couldn't directly prevent the county board members from collecting pensions.

County board members said this is what IMRF and county human resources staff advised them to do in the wake of the 2016 law.

"I just did what I was told to do," said Lake County Board member Steve Carlson. "Don't assault the character of people who are doing what they were told they could do."

Cook County elected officials do not use IMRF. No current DuPage County Board members are collecting IMRF pensions, according to IMRF records.

John Jung, a longtime McHenry County Board member, said the issue came up during his last campaign, but ultimately voters overlooked it and reelected him.

"I can see their side of it, but I can also see my side that I paid into it all those years and I'm entitled to it," he said. "What I'm tired of is state legislators make laws about reforming government, but they haven't done a thing to reform themselves."

Jung wasn't the only county board pensioner who noted some lawmakers are collecting IMRF or other public pensions while receiving legislative salaries. Many of the Lake County delegation pointed to former colleague and current state Sen. Melinda Bush as an example.

Bush, a Grayslake Democrat, angrily clapped back at her detractors, saying she collects her pension from a previous job, not one she's holding now.

"It's not remotely the same thing," she said. "I worked for 16 years in education for which I receive a $12,000-a-year pension from IMRF and then I opted out of my legislative pension when I was elected to the state Senate. These are people in the same job that are getting paid, and already getting a pension for it. It's absurd."

IMRF spokesman John Krupa said the county board members aren't required to collect their pensions while still on the board, but they'd never recoup the money if they waited to begin their pensions at a later date. Board members could write to the retirement system to suspend payments and save their salaries if Link's bill passes.

All of the suburban county board members receiving pensions make more from their salaries than from their pensions, except one. Will County board member James Moustis makes $82,124 a year from his pension, IMRF officials said.

His county board salary is $24,000 a year. The Frankfort Republican is also Frankfort Township supervisor, which also qualified for an IMRF position at one time.

When Moustis was elected to the county board he was able to enroll in a special pension program for county board members that accelerates their retirement benefits. Instead of having to work 35-plus years to maximize benefits, the special pension for county board members allows them to max out after just 20 years and receive 80 percent of their final salary.

Moustis was allowed to use his service time and salary with Frankfort Township to boost his pension payout through the special county board program, as well.

"I understand that it's perfectly legal, but its egregious in terms of the ramifications it has on taxpayers," said Emily Biegel, chairwoman of the Frankfort Township Democrats.

Moustis did not respond to requests for comment about the story.

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