Country Club Hills: The half-million-dollar City Council
A middle-class south suburb whose mayor has been attacked for high spending is also home to a highly paid City Council with big expense accounts to pay for everything from margaritas to wedding gifts, the Tribune has found.

Country Club Hills' 10 aldermen represent just 16,500 people, but they are paid roughly $31,000 a year and given an unusual $9,000-a-year expense account.

The Tribune found those individual funds are essentially used as walking-around money. They have paid for hundreds of meals — including an outing with an intern to Hooters, an upscale Christmas Eve dinner and two meals to discuss "high taxes."

The aldermen also spend thousands on gift cards — ranging from $900 in Christmas gifts to $25 at Toys R Us for a local girl bitten by a dog. The charges to taxpayers include baseball games, concerts, bowling, resident water bills and even a resident's red-light camera ticket.

Two aldermen hit up the city for nearly $100 to cover expenses for attending a political fundraiser for Cicero's mayor.

The expense accounts, salaries and other council extras come in at a little less than $500,000, or about $30 per resident, per year.

Bigger towns have councils that cost less. And the aldermen in question recently criticized the city's mayor over his expenses, though they say their own salaries and spending are justified.

"We ensure that the city services reach (the people) anytime," said Ald. Frank Martin. "We do a good job."

The Tribune reviewed about $130,000 in reported spending from expense accounts since 2009 and found:

•Aldermen spent $18,862 for meals, usually reported as meetings with residents and sometimes to discuss the town's high taxes and budget problems.

•They spent $18,263 for gifts and direct assistance to residents, frequently in the form of gift cards for graduation, wedding and birthday presents.

•They spent $9,920 on travel, including one Washington trip for an alderman just before he resigned.

The revelations come after WGN-TV reported in June that Mayor Dwight Welch was spending tens of thousands of dollars on meals, gifts and other items via his city credit card. That is on top of his $140,000-a-year pay.

The aldermen voted to take away Welch's credit card, then pushed through a round of politically charged layoffs to help ease pressure on the town's $35 million budget.

Now, Welch is blasting the aldermen's pay and expense accounts, saying he would push for a referendum measure to reduce the council's cost and size.

"It is ridiculous," the veteran mayor said. "They shouldn't be getting this kind of money."

Some aldermen now say they are looking to reform their expense accounts, but it remains unclear how they might do that.

The financial package bestowed on Country Club Hills aldermen is out of sync with other towns the Tribune polled, including much larger cities and similarly sized suburbs.

None of the 10 towns polled provides anything like a $9,000-a-year expense account to council members.