Stipends for county officials cost state $3.4 million
It's hard to find anyone who supports a state program that pays some 500-plus county officials $6,500 stipends each year just for holding elected posts.
Except those who receive the stipend, that is. But even among that group, support is waning.
"I think they'll be taken away," said Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, one of the recipients. "Do I think they're necessary? In the big scheme of things, in a multi-billion-dollar budget, it's not a big deal. But it's a big deal now because people hate elected officials and think they're overpaid."
This year, 531 county clerks, court clerks, sheriffs, auditors, recorders, coroners and treasurers received the stipends, which amounted to more than $3.4 million, according to Illinois comptroller financial records. The stipend is considered part of an elected official's salary, so it also boosts his or her pension and increases the cost to taxpayers of covering those benefits.
"There may have been a good reason for the state to pay the stipend years ago when government salaries were low, or in counties where the jobs are part-time," said Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association. "But public officials in big counties around Chicago are very well compensated by county taxpayers and don't need or deserve a bonus from the state, especially when the bonuses are also used to boost pensions, which adds millions of additional dollars in pension obligations."
Analysis of payroll and pension data shows some suburban county officials could receive as much as $60,000 more during the first 10 years of retirement because of the stipends' impact.
"That's not good that it counts toward the pension," said state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat who has proposed legislation in the past to cut the stipends. "That's like going to a restaurant and basing the tip on the tax as well as the food you bought."
The Illinois Association of County Officials has fought past efforts in the legislature to end the stipends, but leaders within that organization are starting to buckle as well. They say some of the county officials downstate rely on those stipends much more than their suburban counterparts, most of whom make six-figure salaries.
"This is going to upset some members up north, but the impact of those stipends is really felt in the southern two-thirds of the state," said Frank Heiligenstein, president of the state organization and a county board member in downstate St. Clair County. "The larger the county, the larger the salary we're dealing with, so once a salary gets over the $100,000 threshold there needs to be some consideration given to eliminating that stipend."
In many cases, the stipends have been around for decades. Others were instituted when county officials complained their posts weren't receiving the extra money from the state, Heiligenstein said.
Various state departments are responsible for funding the stipends depending on the county officials that receive them. The Illinois Department of Revenue covers stipends for auditors, coroners, treasurers and sheriffs.
"The stipends were created to provide the county with enough money so they can hire somebody with appropriate skills," said Sue Hofer, spokeswoman for the revenue department.
Heiligenstein said they served another purpose as well.
"There are a lot of mandated policies from the state and counties have these stipends to help cover their (costs)," he said. "I can see where the stipends ease the pain a little bit."
But critics scoff at that notion, pointing out that the stipends don't go into an office's general fund, but directly into the wallets of the elected officials.
"We, in effect, have taxpayers paying twice for the job," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Democrat from Park Ridge. "The issue is whether state government should be subsidizing or incentivizing a service that local government is providing and taxpayers there are already paying for."
Pappas, who makes $105,000 a year, complained that she hadn't received a raise in more than a decade. Her counterpart in DuPage County, Gwen Henry, said the county board takes the state stipend into consideration when they set her salary, which at $135,762 is the highest among county treasurers in the collar counties.
"From the standpoint that if the county is reducing the salary to compensate for the stipend, then they're fair," she said. "It's supposedly making up for the work we do that pertains to the state."
But Henry acknowledges the stipend she receives is the only money her office receives for such state work.
These stipends are similar to a program the state instituted in 1984 that pays township assessors $3,000 annual bonuses if the assessment figures are done correctly. Those bonuses, outlined in a recent Daily Herald Suburban Tax Watchdog column, have cost taxpayers as much as $650,000 a year statewide. So far in 2012, the combined cost of the county stipends and the assessment bonuses is $3,782,315, according to comptroller records.
"What they raise in question is whether they are the best way for taxpayers to fund these offices," said Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago-based Civic Federation, a government finance research organization. "It appears as if they are not connected to actual operations and performance of the various offices."
Msall said the state's $5.8 billion in unpaid bills, according to Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, should spur the legislature to take action.
"It's hard to believe that these local government stipends are a higher priority than the unpaid bills and obligations of the state," he said. "Every dollar the state spends in times of enormous debt has to be analyzed and scrutinized."
Despite the state's financial challenges and what many critics consider "low-hanging fruit," Kotowski doesn't believe the stipends will be eliminated without a fight.
"There are a lot of sacred cows that unfortunately still exist in the state budget," he said. "It's going to take time to dismantle."
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Stipends: Cook treasurer making $105,000 this year; DuPage's $135,762
Stipends by the numbersHere are some key figures regarding state stipends to elected county officials.
$6,500: Amount annually given to most county auditors, clerks, court clerks, coroners, recorders, treasurers and sheriffs
531: County officials receiving the stipend statewide in 2012
$3,434,315: Total stipend amount paid to county officials statewide in 2012
27: Number of elected officials who received stipend from Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties
$175,500: Total stipend amount paid to collar county officials
$171,867: DuPage County Sheriff John Zaruba's salary, highest among 27 collar county officials who received a stipend this year
$85,231: Kane County Coroner Chuck West's salary, lowest among 27 collar county officials who received a stipend this year. West died July 4.
$3,582,507: Combined salaries of 27 collar counties officials who received stipends
Source: Illinois Comptroller and counties