A tip from a labor union upset with the McHenry County Board’s endorsement of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” led to the ongoing inquiry by the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund as to whether board members are working the 1,000 hours a year necessary to earn a pension.
The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, after being contacted by the newspaper, said it provided IMRF with the tip. The reason, spokesman Ed Maher said, was the board’s 2015 vote on a symbolic resolution to support Rauner’s agenda, which includes significant curtailing of collective bargaining powers.
“The local saw that the County Board was aiming at workers’ pensions through the ‘Turnaround Agenda,’" Maher said. "We also were aware as an organization that the County Board is a part-time position, yet they collect pensions under IMRF. The question became whether they were working the 1,000 hours as required."
Local 150 was one of many local unions that showed up in big numbers at the April 9 meeting in which board members voted, 16-5, to approve the nonbinding resolution supporting the agenda of Rauner, who was elected in 2014 on a reform platform aimed at reversing Illinois’ dire economic and political fortunes. The union represents county government building maintenance workers and McHenry County Division of Transportation drivers.
IMRF Director Louis Kosiba told the Northwest Herald on Monday that the agency was looking into board members' work hours. He was joined by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who said he will ask State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi for a special prosecutor to see if any crimes were committed – cheating IMRF is a Class 3 felony.
A thousand hours a year works out to about 20 hours a week for 50 weeks. State law sets a minimum standard of 600 hours a year to qualify for IMRF benefits, but the County Board in 1997 set a higher 1,000-hour standard by ordinance.
All but four of the County Board’s 24 members, more than 80 percent, are now paying into IMRF, according to records. Two members outright spurned the pension and declined their IMRF eligibility, while the other two are not paying in because they already are receiving IMRF pensions through their previous government jobs. The percentage is the largest of the collar counties, IMRF data shows.
Like McHenry County, the DuPage and Lake county boards adopted the higher 1,000-hour standard. Eleven of the DuPage County Board’s 19 members – 18 board members and the elected chairman – participate in IMRF, as do 16 of the 21 members of the Lake County Board.
The Kane County Board has a percentage about equal to McHenry County, with 21 of its 25 members participating, but the county has the lower 600-hour standard. So does Will County, where 15 of its 27 board members participate. Their totals also include an elected chairman and a county executive, respectively.
The IMRF’s policy manual states that people elected to county and township boards and municipal governments with the 1,000-hour threshold likely will not qualify for IMRF pensions, “barring highly unusual circumstances.”
After the April 9 vote, Local 150 added up the hours that McHenry County Board members were present in meetings for the 2014 calendar year, based on minutes and attendance records. Maher said the numbers made it “seem like an awful stretch” that board members were working the 1,000 hours.
“With a minimum of research, we were able to collect suspicious data that these County Board members are going to have to answer for,” Maher said.
But McHenry County Board members in the wake of the allegations have defended their workloads. Under IMRF rules, elected officials can count 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, or the idea of being “on call” for constituents, cannot be counted.
The IMRF in the wake of Local 150’s tip asked County Board members last July to fill out forms certifying their annual 1,000 hours of work – 20 of the 24 did so. The other four either declined IMRF pensions through the county or were leaving office and would not be putting in the minimum number of years to receive a pension.
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.
Eligible officials and employees elected or hired before 2011 must serve a minimum of eight years to be eligible for an IMRF pension. Reforms to the state pension systems increased that threshold to 10 years starting in 2011.
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.
Local 150 filed a lawsuit last year against the County Board, alleging that a private meeting between eight board members and Rauner the day before the resolution vote violated the Open Meetings Act. The lawsuit, which seeks to have the symbolic resolution declared null and void, still is active.