BGA: Little pay but big pensions for suburban sewer board members

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The South Lyons Township Sanitary District pays its elected trustees several thousand dollars a year, but their retirement benefits can be rich.

That’s because trustees who also worked for other taxpayer-funded bodies can combine their time in government service, greatly increasing their pensions.

The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, which oversees the district’s retirement plan, tried to strip away the trustees’ benefits in 2011, arguing that board members didn’t work enough to justify getting a pension.

Former South Lyons trustee John Finn agrees.

“I don’t think they deserve pensions,” says Finn, who, during an audit of the retirement plan, refused to sign paperwork certifying that he worked enough hours to qualify for a pension.

“I kept a log and said, ‘Nope, I’m not signing this,’ ” Finn says.

The sanitary district maintains about 20 miles of sewer lines for roughly half of Countryside and part of LaGrange, contracting out the work. It’s so small that some local officials have suggested that its duties be absorbed by other agencies.

IMRF is the pension plan for many suburban and downstate government workers, including those at the sanitary district. Following an audit, the pension fund’s board ultimately determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence that any of the South Lyons trustees were short of the 600 hours a year required to be eligible for a pension.

It wasn’t the first effort to end the trustees’ pensions. In 1978, South Lyons board members stripped away retirement benefits for themselves, saying they didn’t work enough to qualify.

But in 1987 the board voted to reinstate pension benefits. None of the trustees on the board then are still on it.

Though the South Lyons board members made only $3,000 a year in 1987, their pensions are worth much more. For the three trustees who voted to give themselves the retirement benefits in 1987, here’s how they break down:

• John C. Walsh served on the South Lyons board from 1981 through 2004, then was assistant superintendent of the district until 2008. He started collecting a pension in July 2009. His current yearly pension is $73,815. If his time as a sanitary district trustee didn’t count, his pension would be only $25,757 a year, according to IMRF. Walsh also worked for Lyons and Worth townships.

Walsh paid a total of $64,222 to fund his pension — $20,298 of that for his South Lyons work. The sanitary district paid IMRF $427,493 to fund his pension, according to the pension fund.

The district collected a total of $324,038 in property taxes last year.

Walsh defends his pension, saying the idea that he didn’t work enough hours to qualify, as IMRF contended, is “ludicrous.” The IMRF audit looked at current and former trustees and how much time they put in. Walsh points to the pension fund board’s final decision to uphold the district’s retirement plan.

• Peter A. Felice joined the South Lyons board in 1986 and left in 2002. Felice, who also worked for the city of Berwyn, is now a Cook County judge and hasn’t started drawing a pension. If he had retired May 1 and combined all of his government time and credits, IMRF estimates his annual payout from the pension board would have been $48,600 a year. The sanitary district would have to pay $427,810 to fund that pension, according to IMRF estimates. Felice contributed $3,521 toward his pension to cover his years with South Lyons.

Felice — who also would qualify for a judicial pension — asked that any questions be sent to him in writing, then didn’t respond to them.

• Thomas F. Peck joined the board in 1980 and left in 2010. He doesn’t have additional government service. His current pension is $3,775 a year. The district paid IMRF $29,491 to fund it. Peck, who couldn’t be reached for comment, contributed $5,211.

Current trustees Michael Grace, Tom Clancy and Susan Felice, who’s married to former trustee Peter Felice, all say they put in enough hours to qualify for a future pension. All are currently enrolled but not yet drawing pensions. Each makes $6,000 a year for their work for the sanitary district.

This was written by Patrick Rehkamp of the Better Government Association.


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