Part-time county board pensions go big-time
For 16 years, Bob Schroeder was a loud voice of fiscal responsibility on the DuPage County Board.
But his mama didn't raise no dummy.
While he voted against the legislation that gives him his $41,347 pension for serving on the part-time board, and while he still thinks it's an "awful" program, he's keeping the cash.
"No, county board members don't deserve those kinds of pensions," said Schroeder, of Naperville. "And I don't deserve it. But I'm not going to turn it down."
Among the 17 former DuPage County Board members receiving a pension, Schroeder's is below the $45,627 average.
Schroeder's pension is one of 32 paid to former DuPage and Will County board members that will cost taxpayers in those counties almost $1.2 million this year. That's because the DuPage and Will County boards voted themselves into the special Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund program that was specifically created for elected county officials in 1997.
County boards in Kane, Lake and McHenry counties resisted voting for enhanced pensions, so taxpayers in those three counties combined will pay just $115,312 this year for 16 retired board members. Cook County Board members aren't eligible because they participate in a separate pension program, not IMRF.
Instead of the traditional IMRF pension payout that gives retirees 75 percent of a convoluted earnings formula if they put in 40 years of work, the special county program gives elected officials 80 percent of their final year's salary after just 20 years.
DuPage has the highest average pension for county board retirees among the collar counties. In Will County, the average pension payout for former county board members is $25,130. The average is $10,557, $8,656 and $3,560 respectively in Lake, Kane and McHenry counties.
Schroeder railed against DuPage County's participation in the program when it came up for a vote just after the 1998 election, saying it would lead to "greater cynicism" of government by voters.
"The other board members called me a hypocrite for taking it, but I told them if they had voted my way it wouldn't be an issue," he said.
Larry Leafblad of Grayslake served 18 years on the Lake County Board, two more than Schroeder did in DuPage. He'll collect a $10,037 pension this year.
"When that $836 check comes in the mail each month I think, 'that's nice,'" Leafblad said. "I use it to help pay my property taxes."
Some critics don't think county board members should receive pensions at all.
"It doesn't make any sense to be paying a lifetime benefit for a part-time job," said Collin Hitt, senior director of government affairs at the nonpartisan government watchdog organization Illinois Policy Institute. "It's surprising that anyone is still willing to stand and defend this practice."
But not many are anymore. A bill passed by the state legislature is awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature to abolish the special county pension program. Hitt notes it won't stop county board members from being eligible for pensions altogether.
And it won't keep the legions of current county board members from receiving the benefits they accumulated under the current system. All but three of the 18 current DuPage County Board members will receive the enhanced pension benefits. Dirk Enger of Winfield, Bob Larsen of Wheaton and Tony Michelassi of Aurora don't participate in the pension program.
"I felt it wasn't appropriate to be getting a pension for something considered a part-time job," Michelassi said. "I don't think it's fair. If you're the guy working for the county who's out cutting grass for 40 years of your life and you're only getting three-quarters of your pay at the end of your career, that's absolutely not fair."
Another perk of the special county pension program is that credit is given for other government work. So a retired county board member's pension is boosted by elected or hired service at townships, municipalities, park districts or even another job at the county. Many former county board members in DuPage and Will counties have credit from other work.
Dean Westrom is one such pensioner. He was a DuPage County Board member for eight years -- during which he voted for the enhanced pension program -- but he also served in Winfield Township government, spent six years as chairman of the DuPage Election Commission and in 2005 became director of golf operations for the DuPage County Forest Preserve before retiring last year. All those jobs add up to a pension of $77,900 this year. If the pension enhancement program hadn't been instituted, his pension would be about $38,000, based on IMRF data and formulas.
"I voted for it, but if I had to do it over again I'd want it modified in such a manner that it outlines if you leave an elected position, you wouldn't be able to stay in that pension program," Westrom said. "I guess that's where the rub is."
Got a tip?
Got a tip for the suburban tax watchdog? Contact Jake Griffin at email@example.com or (847) 427-4602. And follow him online at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and twitter.com/#!/DHJakeGriffin.
Pension numbers at a glanceDuPage: Avg. pension is $45,627; will pay $775,665 in 2011 for 17 retirees
Will: Avg. pension is $25,130; will pay $376,952 in 2011 for 15 retirees
Lake: Avg. pension is $10,557; will pay $42,230 in 2011 for 4 retirees
Kane: Avg. pension is $8,656; will pay $51,935 in 2011 for 6 retirees
McHenry: Avg. pension is$3,560; will pay $21,362 in 2011 for 6 retirees