IMRF asks: Are Elk Grove Village officials eligible for pensions?
One of the largest public employee pension systems in the state is questioning whether Elk Grove Village's mayor and five of its trustees work enough hours to be eligible for pensions.
A three-page letter sent by the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund's general counsel to village officials asks for documentation showing elected village board members work at least 1,000 hours a year -- the threshold to be eligible for a pension.
And if not, IMRF asks the board to adopt a resolution abolishing their participation in the pension fund.
The inquiry was prompted by a tip from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, a prominent labor group that's been critical of the Elk Grove Village board's support of Gov. Bruce Rauner's turnaround agenda.
Using public meeting minutes, Local 150 sent its analysis to IMRF of the estimated time board members spent in meetings in 2015, which showed no one spent more than 60 hours.
Even if board members spent three hours preparing for every hour in a meeting, the total would still be less than the required 1,000 hours, IMRF General Counsel Kathleen O'Brien wrote in the May 25 letter to Elk Grove.
Mayor Craig Johnson said the union's figures don't take into account time he spends in his office at village hall, responding to constituents, attending ribbon cuttings, and going to other meetings as a representative of the village, including the Suburban O'Hare Commission and North Suburban Municipal Joint Action Water Agency.
A "rough calculation," Johnson estimates, would put his hours between 1,200 and 1,500 a year.
Trustee Jeff Franke said beyond village board meeting time, he meets weekly with other organizers of the upcoming village Oktoberfest, and coordinates activities of the youth committee, including last Friday's splash party.
"It's hard to nail it down, but if they want documentation, I'll give them documentation," said Franke, a board member since 2007. "It's not like we phone it in. We're all involved in the community."
The only board member not covered under IMRF is Pat Feichter, who as a retired teacher is covered under a different pension fund.
IMRF gave Elk Grove until July 29 to respond. Johnson said the village's attorney has spoken with IMRF officials, but the board is still waiting for clarification, leaving the matter for now unresolved.
Elk Grove is one of 220 units of local government that has elected officials who participate in IMRF. There's some 900 elected officials currently paying into the system, including Elk Grove's mayor and five of its trustees.
"It's not uncommon, but it's not the majority," said John Krupa, an IMRF spokesman. "It's growing increasingly common for elected officials, particularly village boards, to say the job used to require 1,000 hours of work, but it doesn't anymore."
IMRF audits 20 percent of its membership every year and asks local boards to certify their hourly requirements, but it also asks that question when prompted by tips from outsiders, Krupa said.
Local 150 spokesman Ed Maher said the union decided to examine Elk Grove officials' eligibility for pensions after Johnson's public criticism of pensions during a raucous village board meeting April 28, 2015. At the meeting, attended by hundreds of union members, the village board unanimously approved a resolution in support of parts of Rauner's turnaround agenda, which labor groups have criticized as anti-union.
"Taxpayers have been covering Johnson's contributions into the fund for well over a decade," Maher said. "In public, he's extremely opposed to the idea of pensions, but he's collecting one he elects to participate in. He's talking out of both sides of his mouth."
While saying he's never hid his feelings on pensions, Johnson said he's paid into IMRF since he became a trustee in 1993, then mayor in 1997, with the salary he's earned.
Johnson did say he believes government needs to uphold its promises to employees by paying their pensions, but he does favor changes. That includes elimination of automatic cost of living increases, replaced by increases tied to the consumer price index. And he thinks the retirement age should go up. Johnson, like Rauner, favors putting new employees on a 401(k)-style retirement plan instead of a defined benefit plan.
"They're upset because I think pensions are unsustainable. This country may fall apart because of pensions," Johnson said. "Am I going to continue to stand up and do what I think is right for my community? Yes. I have to worry about the welfare of the taxpayers and community. The unions worry about themselves."
Local 150 also tipped off IMRF about McHenry County Board members' eligibility for pensions, following that board's similar endorsement of Rauner's agenda last year. Last June, the board passed a resolution rescinding their IMRF benefits.
A bill is now on Rauner's desk that would prevent newly elected county board members in Illinois from getting pensions, while current board members would have to file monthly logs proving they work the required number of hours.