Oak Brook Village President John Craig portrays himself as a fiscal conservative who favors privatizing more of the fire department and laying off firefighters to scale back costs for salaries and for pensions "we just can't afford."
But at the same time, Craig and his wife together collect four public pensions totaling about $142,000 a year, and he stands to add a fifth government pension when he retires from his current job with the state of Illinois, a Better Government Association/Daily Herald investigation reveals.
Craig receives two public-sector pensions — one for his days as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and another for his time as a Cook County sheriff's officer. Together, they pay him more than $92,000 a year, according to pension records and interviews with Craig and other public officials.
Craig, 76, acknowledged that he stands to collect a third public pension when he retires from his current job: a $63,000-a-year post with the Illinois secretary of state's office.
Meanwhile, Craig's wife, Connie, brings two additional pensions into their household, pension records show. Together, they pay her nearly $50,000 annually, covering her time as a teacher in Chicago and River Forest.
Asked whether his criticism of government-backed pensions is at odds with his own taxpayer-funded benefits, Craig said the village pays more than $100,000 annually for each firefighter in salary, overtime, benefits and pension contributions. That's a payout "we just can't afford," Craig said.
He said "any job I ever had, I never made $100,000 a year" — and that early in his teaching career he was making $18.50 a day as a substitute.
Craig personally pulls in about $165,000 a year in government-related pensions and paychecks — including $10,400 from the village of Oak Brook to compensate him for his dual roles as village president and liquor commissioner. That total excludes Connie Craig's direct income.
The village president job is considered part-time and does not qualify Craig for a municipal pension, according to Oak Brook Village Manager Dave Niemeyer.
Craig said he takes "offense" that anybody would question his right to the pensions, saying, "I earned them," and noting he put in nearly 40 years as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and a substitute.
His wife put in about 30 years teaching in Chicago and River Forest, he said, adding his county pension amounts to less than $200 a month, while his teacher pension is his "mainstay."
For the past decade, he has worked full-time as a "dealer rep" for the Illinois secretary of state's office, meaning Craig, among other things, visits auto dealers to inventory temporary license plates.
He was vested in the state pension plan two years ago, agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Kaufman said. Craig also has a government car to get around and receives health insurance through the secretary of state's office, she said.
Craig, who is wrapping up his first term as village president, is running for re-election in April against Dr. Gopal Lalmalani, an Oak Brook plan commission member.
Remarks from Craig and another Oak Brook resident at a Sept. 22 Citizens Finance Advisory Committee meeting made it clear where Craig stands on Oak Brook employees' benefits.
According to the village's official audio recording, Craig criticized the salaries and pensions of Oak Brook firefighters and suggested the department privatize more of its functions — it already contracts out a handful of firefighter-paramedic jobs — or be swallowed by a neighboring fire protection district to cut costs and pension obligations.
"One of our biggest problems is our pension program," Craig said at the meeting. "We have to come to face reality, that we just can't afford the pension programs as they're presently funded."
He was immediately followed at the microphone by an Oak Brook resident who called police and firefighters "street people," and said the village should start firing them one by one to force concessions. The comments ended up on the Internet and went viral, enraging public-safety workers and union members around the country.
In brief, this is how Oak Brook's pension system works: Local firefighters and police officers must contribute part of their paychecks to their respective pension plans. Whether times are good or bad, the employees give the same amount. When they retire, they receive regular checks to live off of.
The village government also contributes funds to those pension plans, which are invested in the financial markets. The village's contributions are guided by state law, Niemeyer said.
When times are good, the village contributes less, relying on investment income to cover its required payment. But when times are bad and there is less investment income, the village has to pony up more cash to keep the pension plans funded adequately.
During the current recession, the village has had to dig deep into its coffers for several years, officials said.
In 2010, the village contributed $26,383 per firefighter to cover pension costs, compared to $2,098 per firefighter in 1999.
For 2011, the village government budgeted about $2 million for police and fire pensions, Niemeyer said. In 2010, nearly $1.9 million was spent, he said.
While other municipalities are experiencing similar fiscal troubles, Oak Brook is in an unusual predicament because there isn't a village property tax levy. Instead, the local government relies on sales tax revenues, which have been sluggish.
Craig said the village has been "handicapped" by a union contract that not only dictates pay in the fire department but also the number of full-time employees.
But Oak Brook firefighters union President George Grodek says the base salary for village firefighters is roughly $69,000 a year — among the lowest in DuPage County for municipal departments.
"He's collecting multiple ... pensions — yet he wants to take away mine," Grodek said. "The hypocrisy is just remarkable."
Niemeyer said firefighters have been working without a contract for about two years.
Craig said the airing of his pension income is no more than politics.
"I think some people are looking for political things to hit me with."
Image: Patrick Kunzer/Daily Herald
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