Highland Park News

Editorial: Members who OK'd sky-high pension payouts need to go

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Three Highland Park Park District Board members should step down for voting to approve a series of exorbitant bonuses, salary increases and pension-bloating payouts to top district executives between 2005 and 2008.

The three -- Park Board president Lorry Werhane and commissioners Stacy Weiss and Nancy Rosenbaum -- apologized for the high payouts during a raucous meeting last week. But none of the trio plans to resign.

Residents have lost all confidence in those members, who failed to serve the community in awarding bonuses to former executive director Ralph Volpe, finance director Kenneth Swan and facilities director David Harris that totaled $700,000 during a four-year span.

Highland Park property taxpayers will be paying for a good chunk of the multimillion-dollar pension payouts resulting from the Park Board's largesse. Volpe, for example, who retired as executive director at age 57 in 2009, saw his compensation soar from $138,734 to $435,204 during the four years that were used to determine his pension benefits.

During 2008, his last full year of employment, he received more than $285,000 in compensation characterized as merit pay and bonuses in addition to his base salary of $149,551.
According to published reports, Volpe is receiving an annual pension from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund of $166,332, an amount that will rise by nearly $5,000 each year with guaranteed 3 percent pay raises. Retirees also receive a partial 13th check each July in addition to their 12 normal payments.

Had Volpe received only 4 percent raises during the four years before retirement, his lifetime pension benefits might have predictably ranged from $2.7 to $3.9 million.

Swan's salary, which was $124,908 in 2005, spiked to $218,372 in 2008. Harris' pay jumped from $135,403 to $339,302 during that time.

To make matters even worse, Park District officials confirmed that Harris received the remaining $185,120 left on his three-year contract even though he resigned in 2008. But wait! It doesn't end there. The district also gave him a sport utility vehicle while his compensation without the SUV in 2008 still totaled $339,302 for eight months on the job.

Moreover, Volpe also is eligible for Social Security when he is age-eligible and elects to begin drawing those benefits.

Park officials have said they believed they acted in the best interests of the community. But if so, then why did they feel the need to apologize right after news reports revealed the payouts to Volpe, Swan and Harris, and the long-term financial implications for taxpayers.

Their claim that the bonuses were a once-accepted way to reward top-performing employees is simply ludicrous.
Park Board members say they want to "do what it takes" to win back the public's confidence. Given the unwise decisions already made, there's no good reason to trust any decisions they make in the future.

An apology is too little too late. For the good of the community, Werhane, Weiss and Rosenbaum need to resign. Now.