Culture of greed

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Park commissioners in Highland Park deliberately inflated the compensation package of their retiring executive director to bump his pension by tens of thousands of dollars per year. Bellwood officials were surprised — surprised! — to learn their village administrator, whose base salary was $128,940, collected nearly half a million dollars the year before he retired.

Welcome to Illinois, where shameless opportunism meets hapless fiscal stewardship, and the taxpayers lose again. If you think the culture of greed and entitlement is more or less contained in Springfield, the capital of pay-to-play, or Chicago (unofficial motto: "Where's mine?"), then you're not paying attention. Wake up.

Not long ago, we learned that the executive director of Metra had been padding his compensation for nearly two decades — granting himself ever-larger blocks of vacation and cashing them out in advance, for example, or authorizing extra deposits to his own 401(k) account — while nobody on the commuter rail's governing board so much as raised an eyebrow.

Last year we learned that officials at the state's flagship university were running a separate admissions system to help political power brokers clout their friends into college. The university's trustees were complicit or clueless.

In June, the Tribune reported that Roy McCampbell, village administrator for blue-collar Bellwood, made $472,255 in 2009 — more than any suburban municipal executive in Illinois. That includes $128,940 in base salary; $115,101 for work performed as budget director, public safety CEO, human resources director, finance director, mayoral assistant and other posts; $66,000 for serving as corporation counsel; $126,214 for unused sick and vacation days and $36,000 he couldn't explain, but then neither could the Village Board, which signed off on all of this.

Those bumps increased his pension from roughly $180,000 a year to more than $250,000, the highest in the state's municipal employee retirement fund.

And now there's Highland Park, where park commissioners awarded their soon-to-retire executives generous raises and bonuses to "provide them with a good pension for what they had accomplished for the community," according to Board President Lorenz Werhane Jr.

Executive Director Ralph Volpe, whose 2008 salary was $164,204, was paid $435,203 that year. That bumped his pension by more than $50,000, to $166,332 a year. Finance director Kenneth Swan got a five-year deal that includes a $75,000 bonus each year.

Facilities director David Harris, who was being groomed to take over the district, resigned with eight months left on his contract, but there were no hard feelings: The district paid him for those eight months anyway — and let him keep the taxpayers' SUV.

Residents weren't happy to learn that the district was passing out their money so freely. They packed two public meetings, demanding answers and calling for the resignations of the three commissioners who were on the board when the deals were approved. They didn't get many answers — commissioners said those would be posted later on the Internet — but by Wednesday, two of the three commissioners had resigned.

Two suburban lawmakers, meanwhile, want to hold hearings to consider limits on late-career pension bumps.

It's a familiar script, isn't it? From Springfield to the Urbana- Champaign campus, from a commuter rail agency to a suburban park district. This is Illinois. Watch your wallet.