Which suburbs' vehicle allowances count toward pensions?
Does your town give its top administrator a vehicle allowance that raises his or her public pension?
How much did a two-year Open Meetings Act fight between Grayslake Elementary District 46 officials and a taxpayer cost in legal fees?
What are the sweetened drinks that won't be subject to Cook County's new "soda tax?"
These are some of the questions we're answering in something we call watchdog kibble, where we follow up on reader tips, update earlier investigations and shed light on important new topics.
Most suburbs' top administrators get vehicle allowances or use of cars paid for by taxpayers.
But some towns have taken the added step of making sure the perk boosts pensions, too.
Elected boards of at least 13 suburbs voted to make vehicle allowances pensionable earnings for the municipal administrators, Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund officials reported.
The boards have to pass a resolution that makes the allowance -- which ranges between $4,104 and $7,200 in the 13 towns this year -- count toward the administrator's retirement benefits.
The allowance then inflates the amount taxpayers spend on pension obligations. This year, that added cost ranged from $390 to $932 among the 13 towns.
It also will add as much as $5,000 to the first-year pension payout for some of the administrators.
Towns where boards have voted to make vehicle allowances part of an administrator's pensionable earnings are Carpentersville, Elgin, Geneva, Gilberts, Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Kildeer, Lake Zurich, Lincolnshire, St. Charles, Sugar Grove, Vernon Hills and West Dundee.
Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod defended the practice, saying the resolution predates current Village Manager Jim Norris.
"I don't think it's a major issue," McLeod said of the additional pension cost. "It's part of a compensation package, and he goes to a lot of events for the village."
In towns that provide vehicles for city officials, that perk automatically counts toward retirement benefits. The Internal Revenue Service applies a formula based on factors including the amount of use for professional purposes, value of the vehicle and whether the user pays for gas, IMRF officials said. Eleven suburbs provide vehicles to their top administrative officials.
Administrators in Barrington, Elk Grove Village, Glendale Heights, Huntley, Itasca, Lakemoor, Lisle, Mount Prospect, Streamwood, Wauconda and Wheaton all receive vehicles.
Open it up
It was a legal battle that took Grayslake resident Suzanne Morris more than two years to win.
And it was one that Grayslake Elementary District 46 board members spent $1,975 to lose.
Morris, no stranger to the state's Open Meetings Act as a longtime member of the Illinois Community College Board, said she is disappointed it took as long as it did for the Illinois attorney general's public access counselor to come to a decision, but even more disappointed the District 46 school board continued to "dig in it heels" rather than simply post a meeting notice for an obscure committee.
Morris said she informed school district officials in 2013 that a committee made up of administrators and teachers that creates the rules regarding teacher discipline and retention must post notices of meetings and make minutes available to the public. The district disagreed. Morris filed a complaint in January 2014. Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office sided with her in a nonbinding opinion issued in September.
"To me, one of the most important functions of school boards is to decide how you are going to evaluate teachers," Morris said. "There's no reason for that to be secret, and that would be something the community would want to be knowledgeable about."
District 46 officials still dispute the opinion. The district spent nearly $2,000 to fight the complaint, according to legal invoices obtained through a public records request.
"It took the (attorney general) 2½ years to come up with its novel interpretation," said Superintendent Ellen Correll. "For now, the school district plans to post the meetings" of the committee.
Sweet to drink
Chocolate milk drinkers in Cook County, rejoice!
The county's penny-per-ounce tax on "sweetened beverages," slated to take effect July 1, does not apply to most milk products.
It also doesn't apply to beverage-sweetening products, like liquid drops and powders added to water, and it doesn't seem to address products that allow residents to make soda in their own homes.
The tax will add 68 cents to the cost of a two-liter bottle of pop and 72 cents to a six-pack.
Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed the tax as part of the 2017 budget in an effort to help cover an estimated $174 million budget shortfall. She anticipates receiving four months' worth of tax receipts next year, to the tune of $74 million.
While opponents have called the tax a "grocery tax," Preckwinkle says it is as much about health as raising revenue for the county.
"My hope is that this will result in good health outcomes," she said. "When taxes on tobacco went up, look at how cigarette consumption has declined significantly."
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