McHenry County Board members defended their work records, and had some choice words, after once again finding themselves in the crosshairs of Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks.
Franks, of Marengo, announced Monday that he planned to ask for a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that board members are not working the 1,000 hours a year required of them to be eligible to receive pensions under the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. Fund Director Louis Kosiba, joined by Franks, told the Northwest Herald on Monday that his office is questioning whether board members are meeting the requirement.
Board member John Jung, R-Woodstock, said that Franks should mind the state’s business rather than the county’s, and pointed out the fact that he is one election away from being fully vested in the state pension system for Springfield lawmakers.
“I would think he’s got better things to do than to bring the guy from IMRF up here when the state is pretty much insolvent,” Jung said.
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.
McHenry County received a letter last July from IMRF stating that it had received information calling the workloads into question, spokesman John Krupa said. The letter requested that board members fill out the disclosure form affirming that they were meeting the threshold. An audit of the county’s participation in IMRF was conducted last fall, and aside from some minor issues, no red flags were raised – the five-page audit makes no mention of board members.
But a passage from IMRF’s own policy manual, which Kosiba himself pointed out, raises questions. The manual states that, “barring highly unusual circumstances,” people elected to county and township boards and municipal governments will not qualify for IMRF pensions.
Board member Andrew Gasser, R-Fox River Grove, is one of two members who turned down an IMRF pension. While he questioned Franks’ motives and his timing – the announcement came two weeks before the primary – he said board members are going to have to prove they’re working the 1,000 hours required. Two other board members are collecting IMRF through previous government jobs and are not signed up through the county.
“There are going to be a lot of people who are going to have to show their work,” Gasser said.
Franks as part of his argument tallied up the hours that board members spent in meetings last year to help prove his point, arguing that they don’t come close. But that doesn’t tell the whole story – for example, the County Board chairman does not sit on any of the standing committees in which much of county government’s work gets done, but often is conducting county business.
The IMRF counts meeting attendance, preparing for meetings, talking with constituents and employees, and attendance at civic functions in an official capacity as being “on the clock.” Hours that board members are commuting to meetings and functions, or the idea of being “on call” for constituents, do not count.
Board member Chuck Wheeler, R-McHenry, said he definitely meets the 1,000-hour threshold when preparation and constituent outreach is added.
“This is a very difficult job for any citizen to hold when they have another job,” said Wheeler, who owns a health insurance business. “The flexibility needed is tremendous.”
He, too, questioned Franks’ motives, and chalked it up to getting attention for what Wheeler predicted will be a tight re-election race for the Democratic representative. Franks has butted heads with the County Board before, on issues from property tax relief to making the board chairmanship popularly elected.
Board member Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock, said that a number of projects, from the revised stormwater ordinance to the completion and ratification of the Unified Development Ordinance and its subsequent review and revision, easily bring participating board members to meeting the work requirement.
“I’m not complaining, because it’s part of the job, but we put in lots of time on these projects,” Aavang said.
Pensions under IMRF are calculated by a percentage for every year worked based on an employee’s highest average earnings during a certain time period in the last decade of service.
At a salary of $21,000 a year, a board member’s pension does not add up to much – IMRF participants contribute 4.5 percent of each paycheck into the system.
Defrauding IMRF is a Class 3 felony. Eligibility for an IMRF pension is automatically revoked with any felony conviction, Kosiba said.