In Chicago, a public pension -- and a paycheck

Retire on Friday, start a new job on Monday -- and we pay for it all

Sunday, September 13, 2009

John Plezbert found a painless way to double his income.

He retired.

Plezbert was just 49, a few weeks shy of his 50th birthday, when he retired in June 2006 as Mayor Daley's first deputy commissioner of general services -- a job that paid $124,944.

Three days later, he started a new job -- as the $155,324-a-year first deputy director of the mayor's Public Building Commission.

Between his city pension and his city job, Plezbert now makes $246,721 a year.

Plezbert, 53, is a Bridgeport resident with ties to the Daley family's longtime political base, the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.

Under state law, people with 30 years of service with the city of Chicago or Cook County government can start collecting a lifetime of pension checks when they turn 50. Other government workers have to wait till their 55th birthday.

Increasingly, clout-heavy double-dippers retire from one job as soon as they can, then, like Plezbert, find another government job covered by a separate pension plan.

"It's no longer a pension they're receiving based on their inability to work; it's just another level of compensation,'' said Laurence J. Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a Chicago watchdog group that has studied government pensions in Illinois. "There's no reason why the government would provide such generous benefits, which are then compounded by service in other units of government -- all paid for by the taxpayer.''

'It's a benefit to the taxpayers'
Thomas G. Byrne and Dana V. Starks, two high-ranking police officers, each retired with lucrative pensions, then immediately started high-paying jobs in Daley's cabinet.

Byrne has nearly doubled his taxpayer-paid income since he retired from the Chicago Police Department four years ago. Now the city's streets and sanitation commissioner, Byrne takes home a combined $272,584 from his City Hall paycheck and his police pension.

Starks saw his yearly income jump 53 percent when he retired from the Police Department to take a job at City Hall as the mayor's human relations commissioner. Starks now gets a combined $263,897 from his city job and his police pension.

Starks and Byrne didn't return calls seeking comment. Byrne's spokesman referred questions to Daley's press secretary, Jacquelyn Heard.

"I am, by no means, faulting taxpayers for looking askance at this," Heard said. "The thing is, they are out of no more money than if the jobs had been given to two other people. In some cases, it's a benefit to the taxpayers because we're getting someone with a higher skill level.

"In the case of Dana Starks, he was due his pension, and he was going to draw that from the Police Department. At the same time, we needed someone at the Department of Human Relations. Here, we have a person who has the skill sets. He can hit the ground running. He can start improving relations throughout the city. He had other job offers, and we didn't want to lose him.''

There's a better way, according to Dawn Clark Netsch, a former Illinois state comptroller. She thinks government employees should no longer be allowed to receive full retirement benefits if they retire as young as their 50s, saying that only adds to the financial problems facing all taxpayer-funded pension plans in Illinois.

"One of the things that has to be done is to raise the retirement age," said Netsch, who was 68 when she began collecting her own state pension. "The unions will be unhappy. But that's too bad. It's something that needs to be done because people are living longer. That's one thing that adds enormously to the [pension] liability. It accumulates hugely because they live so long.''

'Why should I give up my pension?'
Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins also gets a pension as a retired state senator. She argues there's nothing wrong with someone collecting a government pension at the same time they get a salary from taxpayers. She makes $85,000 in her county post and collects a $75,921 yearly pension.

"When I left the Senate, I left the Senate to retire,'" said Collins, who so far has collected more than $700,000 in pension checks. "Later, I decided to run for that [County Board] seat. Why should I give up my pension? You think I don't have a right to my own money? Every politician is not out here ripping off. Tell the truth about the whole story . . . that it's legal. Change the law so you can't do that."