Huntley Village Manager David Johnson owes some thanks to the Grayslake village board for the $10,018 raise he received this year.
That's because Grayslake Village Manager Mike Ellis' $222,425 base salary was among those used by the Huntley village board to help set Johnson's current $151,400 salary. Huntley officials used administrative salaries in eight suburban communities for comparison, but Ellis' salary was far higher than those anywhere else.
"We're not looking to be the highest, but by the same token we don't want to be the lowest," said Huntley Mayor Chuck Sass. "Six of the eight communities we looked at had higher-compensated managers than Dave. With this increase, there are still five of eight that are higher."
But Huntley was not alone in raising its chief executive's pay. After years of freezes -- either voluntary or imposed -- most suburban municipal administrators are receiving raises this year, according to an analysis of 74 suburbs in six counties. In fact, 55 suburban administrators will combine to make $289,638 more than they did as a group last year, amounting to a 3.7 percent average pay hike among the field.
Some administrators' raises more than doubled that average. After a "compensation committee" was formed in Aurora, the city council voted 9-3 to increase Mayor Tom Weisner's salary by 8.9 percent.
In Kildeer, Village Administrator Michael Talbett received a $44,350 raise -- a 42.2 percent increase -- but officials there said that reflected a significant increase in Talbett's duties and responsibilities more than anything else.
Comparing neighboring suburbs is a fairly common practice in setting administrative salaries, but it's one that critics believe sets unnecessary and expensive precedents.
"Instead of comparisons to the pay in other towns in the area, I think the way to do things is look at your budget and look at the demand there is for this job," said Steve Stanek, managing editor of Budget & Tax News at the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit, business and government research group based in Chicago. "There are a lot of people out of work. It's an employer's market."
Sass defended Johnson's 7.1 percent raise, saying the village manager handled union negotiations for Huntley, which he believed saved taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal fees. Additionally, Sass noted several similar positions were open in the area and the board didn't want to lose Johnson, though the mayor noted Johnson hadn't asked for a raise or threatened to leave.
Sass said Johnson's raise also was a combination of forgoing a 2 percent raise the previous year, a 3 percent raise all employees received this year and a 2.1 percent increase determined from the salary study.
Stanek said many other municipal administrators who had their salaries frozen are seeing higher-than-average raises.
"You are seeing these people get raises two to three times the rate of inflation and you've got to wonder what's going on," he said. "These pay cuts and freezes were given with understanding that they were going to get it all back eventually."
Even Grayslake Mayor Rhett Taylor said municipalities should take more into consideration than what the position pays elsewhere.
"It's good to know what's going on in the marketplace, but salary should be based on performance and measurable objectives," Taylor said.
He said the position pays so much in Grayslake because "we set high standards."
"We only have 58 employees and there are other towns our size with three times that," Taylor said. "We make do with fewer employees. We come to Mike every year and say we will have a balanced budget and remain debt-free, and he's done that even with declining revenues. Saving money for our residents merits a higher salary."
Salaries aren't the only compensation many municipal administrators receive, either. Additional income from bonuses, deferred compensation and allowances for housing, cars and clothes counts toward pension benefits, critics complain. Those amounts are also often set or adjusted after comparing similar perks in other towns, officials said.
According to the analysis, 48 of the 74 suburban administrators will receive $382,809 combined in additional taxable compensation this year. Ellis is in line for a $20,000 "merit bonus," according to the village's employee compensation report.
"Outrageous salaries are only part of annual taxpayer cost," said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of For the Good of Illinois, a government finance watchdog organization based in Elmhurst. "Citizens need to organize and stop these pay and benefit packages. There is a complete disconnect of public manager pay during a difficult economy."
Andrzejewski is pushing for legislation that would reduce state aid to municipalities whose elected leaders grant salaries and additional compensation packages that combine to exceed the governor's salary of $180,000. Among the 74 municipalities studied, 15 currently fit that category.
Andrzejewski said there are many more throughout the state. His organization keeps a database of public salaries and pensions on its website, openthebooks.com.
"The state should claw back from aid payments the full cost of any local salary over $180,000," he said. "A local government can choose to pay these outrageous salaries, but state taxpayers shouldn't subsidize it."
Several communities that are currently reporting no raises for administrators said a pay increase was likely, but elected officials hadn't voted on it yet. Only Algonquin taxpayers are spending less on their village manager this year, but that's because longtime Village Manager William Ganek retired earlier this year with a $205,367 salary and was replaced with Tim Schloneger, who will make $170,684 this year.
Carol Stream Village Manager Joe Breinig is one of just a few suburban municipal administrators who will go without a raise this year. He has voluntarily frozen his salary at $173,097 since 2008. He was the only Carol Stream employee not to receive a raise this year.
"It's a personal decision. I didn't do it initially because I thought it was the hip or cool thing to do," he said. "It's pretty hard to make sacrifices and talk the talk of things being difficult if you're not willing to put yourself out there. The mayor and I have talked about (a raise), and I have indicated I didn't think it was the right time."