Local Government

Do McHenry County Board members work enough to earn state pensions?

The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund is questioning whether McHenry County Board members are working enough hours to justify pensions after they leave office, the Northwest Herald has learned.

And a state representative known for tussling with the County Board over various issues in recent years plans to ask that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate.

Under state law, McHenry County government employees must work at least 1,000 hours a year – or about 20 hours a week for 50 weeks – to qualify for IMRF benefits. The County Board in 1997 set a higher standard for its employees – the law otherwise sets a 600-hour annual minimum.

But an audit conducted last year by IMRF cast doubt on whether most board members are meeting the threshold, IMRF Director Louis Kosiba said.

Kosiba, who along with state Rep. Jack Franks asked to meet with the newspaper’s editors, pointed to a line from the IMRF’s own manual to back his assertion. Barring “highly unusual circumstances,” officials elected to county, village, township or municipal boards will not qualify for IMRF under the 1,000-hour threshold.

“What I would like to do is make sure the county is made whole. If any of these County Board members do put in that 1,000 hours, it’s not my issue. For me, it’s a good-government issue,” said Kosiba, who has led IMRF since 2001.

Franks, D-Marengo, said he intends in the next several days to ask State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi to petition the court for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate. The state’s attorney’s office cannot investigate the County Board because it also acts as the board’s legal counsel, Franks said.

“If they haven’t made these hours, they need to be removed from the pension system, and the money needs to be paid back,” Franks said.

Eight of nine countywide elected offices, and all 24 County Board members, are eligible for IMRF pensions under a 1998 ordinance approved by the board. The elected county regional superintendent of schools is covered under the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System.

Franks has a history of tangling with the County Board on issues such as government consolidation, the popular election of the board chairman, and legislation attempting to freeze its tax levy. While Franks has maintained that he is trying to push needed reforms on an unwilling board, many of its members have accused Franks of engaging in political payback rather than focusing more of his time on the state’s dismal finances.

County Administrator Peter Austin said the county has not heard anything about Kosiba and the IMRF singling out the County Board for greater scrutiny. He said IMRF audited the county last fall, and that they pointed out two or three minor issues regarding some rank-and-file employees, but nothing more serious than that.

Franks through a Freedom of Information Act request provided affidavits signed by 18 board members in August and September – around the time that Kosiba said the audit was ongoing – certifying that they were working at least 1,000 hours a year. Franks said a glance at the number of meetings members attend in a year, and for how long, proves that hitting that 1,000-hour threshold is “almost impossible, even with perfect attendance.”

Two County Board members – Andrew Gasser, R-Fox River Grove, and newly appointed member Jeff Thorsen, R-Woodstock – declined IMRF pensions. Board members Robert Nowak, R-Lake in the Hills, and Don Kopsell, R-Crystal Lake, are not signed up through the county but both have IMRF through previous jobs – Nowak worked for Cary and Kopsell was Nunda Township Highway Commissioner.

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