After striking out at the appellate court recently, the Grayslake Police Pension Fund Board is taking its fight to keep a former officer from doubling his pension's annual cost-of-living increase to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The additional increase could cost Grayslake taxpayers $500,000 more over the next 20 years, and scores of other retired and disabled police officers throughout the state might be able to take advantage of a state pension law loophole as well if the ruling is upheld, pension law experts say.
After a 10-minute executive session Thursday morning, the board voted 3-0 to continue the legal battle against Conrad Gutraj.
Gutraj, who sits on the pension board as the retirees' appointee, abstained from voting. The board's fifth member resigned recently. That left Brian Ernst, Stu Crowley and Linda Wegge to decide whether to continue the lawsuit. Ernst and Crowley are appointed by their fellow officers, while Wegge was appointed by Grayslake Mayor Rhett Taylor.
The board has to file its request for a hearing with the Supreme Court by Aug. 1 or ask for a 30-day extension to do so by that time.
"I know that we want to move this thing along," said Jeff Goodloe, the board's attorney.
The case has already cost more than $23,000 in legal fees to the pension fund, according to financial records presented at Thursday's meeting.
Gutraj was nonplused by the board's decision after the meeting.
"I really don't have a feeling about it," he said. "Right now, the ball is in the pension board's court and they've made their decision."
The two sides have been fighting since 2011 when Gutraj turned 60 and applied for a 3-percent cost-of-living increase to his pension that all police retirees receive when they hit that age. However, the board rejected the increase because he was already receiving a 3-percent annual increase to his disability pension. He has not begun collecting the second cost-of-living increase.
Gutraj suffered a heart attack while performing administrative tasks at the police station in 2000 and was deemed unable to return to work.
Gutraj sued for the second cost-of-living increase citing a 2001 amendment to the state's pension law that gave disabled former officers 30 days to apply for additional benefits. The disabled officers had to fall into a set of very narrow guidelines in order to qualify for the benefit. While there are believed to be hundreds of disabled former officers statewide who could apply for the doubled benefits, Gutraj is the only one anyone is aware of seeking it currently.
Gutraj said he didn't take advantage of his position on the board to file for the benefit.
"I complied with the law as it was," he said. "The law is so clear. Four judges have all said I'm right."
In September, a Lake County circuit court judge ruled in Gutraj's favor, saying that the legislature wrote the law to provide for "separate" annual increases. Last month, a three-judge appellate court panel unanimously upheld the lower court's decision "because the two sections clearly and unambiguously talk about different things."
The appellate court judges did not hear oral arguments from either side and based their rulings on each sides' written submissions.
"The legislature chose to give a 3-percent increase before age 60 to disabled pensioners who cannot obtain other gainful employment," the appellate court opinion reads. "Then, after turning 60, all disabled pensioners receive a 3-percent increase regardless of employment status. The two increases fulfill two different purposes. It is not our province to assess the wisdom of the legislative objectives."
If the Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, Gutraj would be entitled to the additional increase automatically.
The case is being watched throughout the state because of its possible ramifications on other municipalities.
"What this shows is a demonstration of the underlying brokenness of the pension system and the need for reform," said Joe McCoy, legislative director at the Illinois Municipal League, a lobbying and research group for the state's municipalities.