Find them, fire them

Monday, September 20, 2010

Naperville officials blame pension bills, in part, for having to slash their workforce by nearly 100 positions over two years. The City Council declared this spring that municipal pensions were "outdated, not sustainable and too rich." At the same time, they allowed outgoing utilities director Allan Poole to cash in $92,000 of unused sick and vacation time in a way that helped boost his pension by $29,000 a year. Combined with other perks, his total pension grew 26 percent, to $141,000 a year.
—Chicago Tribune, Sept. 17, 2010

There you have it, the injustice that elected officials across Illinois are perpetrating: insiders taking care of insiders at everyone else's expense. From Springfield to county seats to city halls to schools and other special districts, elected officials have obligated taxpayers to decades of astonishing pension payouts for public employees.

But taxpayers don't just lose money. They also lose services they intend their tax dollars to fund: Every dollar scammed for egregious pensions is a dollar that doesn't pay for another teacher, another playground supervisor, another cop.

This coddling of cronies, with officials sweetening retirement for one another, may not fit the definition of corruption. Or does it? Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan told us Friday that her office — provoked by recent Tribune reporting — now is investigating precisely how these pension deals got cut and whether officials have broken laws in the process.

But this isn't a job only for law enforcement. It's a job for fed-up voters. Voters, that is, who battle to fund their own retirements. Who struggle to pay state and local taxes. Who, though out of work, want to hold onto their homes.

Citizens in Highland Park have done the right thing since this newspaper exposed what occurred in that northern suburb: Park commissioners awarded their executives fat pre-retirement raises and bonuses. Executive Director Ralph Volpe's salary was $164,204 in 2008, although the district paid him $435,203 that year. That spiked Volpe's pension by more than $50,000, to $166,332 a year. Since that disclosure, infuriated taxpayers have forced three commissioners who were on the Park Board at the time to resign.

That's the ideal solution: Find the officials who authorized these pension deals — at all levels of government — and fire them. Urge them to resign and if that doesn't work, defeat them at the polls.

Reporters Joseph Ryan and Joe Mahr offered the latest installment in the Tribune's hot pursuit of this issue in a Friday story headlined, "Retirement perks cost towns millions." If you missed it, read it online. The article focused on the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, and the findings ought to end some careers.

Ryan and Mahr found that in Glencoe, a free Jeep, bonuses and other perks for an outgoing parks director cost taxpayers an extra $350,000. Joliet officials literally wrote pension spiking into the employee handbook, costing taxpayers nearly $500,000 for one pension. And in Evanston, four employees cashed in their careers' worth of unused sick and vacation time in a way that helped boost their pensions by an extra $1.2 million. During the last decade, lax rules and oversight may well have cost Illinois taxpayers $145 million — and that's just for municipal retirees who worked in nonemergency jobs such as lifeguard or city manager.

And note this astonishing passage: "With little public outcry over the municipal system, elected leaders have largely failed to seek reforms despite the cost to local governments. Those local governments have lobbying groups that could wield considerable influence on potential reforms, but those lobbying groups are themselves in on the game. They were long ago allowed to join the public pension fund, and outgoing directors for two of the top lobbying groups — Illinois Municipal League and the Illinois Association of Park Districts — recently used the current rules to inflate their pensions 21 percent and 42 percent, respectively."

How can elected officials allow this plundering of Illinois taxpayers? Tribune reporters got multiple answers that boil down to this-isn't-new … everybody-does-it … these-are-the-rules.

Is that so. If these are the rules, who failed to correct them? Are elected officials — and retirees gaming the system — so stupid or immoral that they think whatever is legal also is right?

Evidently so.

The next move, voters, is yours. Find these elected officials. Fire them.