In Glencoe, a free Jeep, bonuses and other perks to an outgoing parks director cost local taxpayers an extra $350,000.
And in Evanston, four administrators cashed in their careers' worth of unused sick and vacation time in a way that helped boost their pensions, costing an extra $1.2 million in pension payments.
Even with governments struggling to provide basic services, the tab for inflated pensions grows as Illinois does not take on reforms other states adopted years ago. Those with the power to stop it, including local officials and statewide lobbying groups, have the most to gain from the status quo. And the Tribune found many have — significantly.
The Tribune investigation of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund reveals:
Pensions for executives are routinely boosted with bonuses, car allowances, cash-outs of unused sick and vacation time, and other perks. Retirement checks can jump 10, 20 even 30 percent from the perks — a practice other states in the Midwest don't allow.
The lax rules and oversight cost taxpayers in Illinois nearly $13 million for just the top-level retirees in the last two years and perhaps as much as $145 million for all municipal fund retirees in the last decade. Now, several local officials are on course to bump their retirement checks by up to 45 percent.
No one is responsible for investigating excesses. In fact, local elected officials are often complicit in the padding.
Those in the system readily acknowledge these problems, then promptly lay blame elsewhere. Retirees say they don't make the rules. Local government officials argue the tactics are legal and have long been used to reward workers.
Pension fund officials say their job is to collect money, invest it and pay it out — not to police the system. Elected officials should be doing that, they say.
Yet recent Tribune stories highlighting excessively inflated pensions have prompted some movement toward reform. Municipal fund Executive Director Louis Kosiba says he's working with state lawmakers to tighten the rules. "Everything is on the table," he said.
Ripe for Abuse
The Tribune took an unprecedented, systematic look at the $22 billion fund that covers 180,000 nonemergency local employees, from lifeguards to village managers, in nearly 3,000 local governments statewide, not including Chicago, which has its own pension funds.
The average retiree with 30 years of service ends up with $37,000 annual pension.
Governments and their employees set aside enough cash that, over time, it should cover the eventual monthly retirement check. Those checks top out at 75 percent of former pay for those who worked at least 40 years.
To reach that, typical employees store away 4.5 percent of every paycheck. For governments, it varies. The fund figures out how much they should sock away based on formulas that assume workers get normal pay raises.
But the Tribune found top bosses are boosting their paychecks by tens of thousands of dollars a year and sending annual retirement income soaring above $100,000.
Suburban executives routinely command car stipends on top of five-figure bonuses and generous pay hikes, not to mention the ability to cash out months of unused sick and vacation time.