Double Dipping in DuPage County

Several county board members draw dual public-sector salaries and stand to draw dual pensions.

With unemployment hovering around 8.5 percent in DuPage County, many residents of the western suburbs are having a tough time making ends meet.

Nonetheless, some members of the DuPage County Board are finding this a rather bountiful time, with at least three pulling in two government paychecks, and at least four poised to draw two public-sector pensions down the road, the Better Government Association found.

One of the more prominent double dippers is 38-year-old John Curran, whose full-time job – as a supervisor in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office – carries an annual salary of $126,746.

Since 2008 he’s also been a DuPage County board member – an elected part-time position that pays $50,000 a year. 

He already is vested in the Cook County Pension Fund and stands to collect a DuPage County pension through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund if he meets certain criteria over time.

The Woodridge resident says he understands the public can be critical about government employees drawing dual incomes – and he gets that some might wonder whether he can handle two labor-intensive positions without giving either short shrift.

But, the Republican insists, "In both roles, I work hard and believe I do a good job."

Either way, he’s not alone.

DuPage County Board Member Michael McMahon (R-Hinsdale) also serves as an Illinois Liquor Control commissioner, a part-time government post that pays roughly $32,000 a year, and could bring a state pension if he puts in enough time.

DuPage County Board Member Rita Gonzalez (D-Addison) works as a cashier at the Illinois secretary of state’s office in Lombard – a government job carrying a $33,795 salary and, so long as Gonzalez puts in enough years and meets other requirements, a state pension.

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst) doesn’t have a second paying public-sector job, although his salary from the county is quite generous: about $128,000 a year. He isn’t vested in the county’s pension plan – that takes eight years, and he was just elected in 2010.

But, having served nearly two decades in the state Legislature, he is fully vested in the pension fund covering the General Assembly, he confirms.

Cronin and the others aren’t breaking any rules by participating in more than one pension program – or by cashing more than one government paycheck.

But they could face political backlash, especially since leaders recently cut benefits for other county employees, scaling back the accrual of sick time and vacations. Another plan would charge the same workers (and participating board members) more for health insurance.

Good-government advocates, such as the BGA, have been calling for pension reforms across the state, including possibly capping payouts on public-sector retirement plans, and limiting the number of plans a single person can participate in.

Such talk has followed revelations that underfunded pension plans could saddle generations of Illinois taxpayers with crippling debt.

Curran
John Curran is a supervisor in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

Computing pension payouts in advance of someone’s retirement can be tricky, but at Curran’s current salary level, his Cook County pension would likely be just over $100,000 a year if he works for a total of 33 years and retires after age 60.

In DuPage, his pension would be just over $40,000 a year if his pay remained constant, and he served on the board for 20 years. But Curran said he isn’t planning to stay that long – and might not stick it out long enough to be vested because he has other political ambitions. What’s more, he now says he would be in favor of eliminating a pension for board members.

Curran said he works like a dog for his paychecks – roughly 40 hours a week for Cook County alone. As chief of special litigation, he oversees a 45-attorney division that defends Cook County against lawsuits, litigates municipal claims and handles real estate tax matters. He got his start as an assistant state’s attorney in 1998.

At the state’s attorney’s office, Curran gets 15 days of vacation, plus four personal days and one floating holiday for a total of four weeks off. He uses that paid time off by working only a half-day on about 40 Tuesdays a year. (The DuPage County Board holds its meetings that day.)

In addition, Curran says he handles DuPage-related business on nights and weekends – dedicating roughly 20 to 30 hours a week.

"He does excellent work," says Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. "As long as he’s properly using vacation and personal time to complete these duties, we have no problem with it."

Curran is not required to live in Cook County to work for that agency.

Gonzalez also reworked her schedule to accommodate the board meetings. Since 2008, the year she was elected, she has not worked full-time at the secretary of state’s office; she puts in 32 hours a week and is off every Tuesday, says Dave Druker, a spokesman for the agency.

Reached on the phone at work, Gonzalez had no comment.

McMahon, who was elected to the board in 2000, confirms his pension information via email, but would not talk with the BGA.

Curran says that if it were up to him, nobody on the county board would draw two pensions.

"The more I think about it, the more I’m in favor of getting rid of pensions for the DuPage County Board," he says.

Honor System Used in Determining Pension Eligibility

DuPage County Board members who want to qualify for pensions are supposed to work at least 1,000 hours a year on county-related business.

But, nobody is watching to make sure that requirement is met, the Better Government Association has learned.

Instead, the county and its pension plan – the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, or IMRF – rely on what’s effectively an honor system, the BGA found.

"There are no timecards," says Dirk Enger (D-Winfield), one of three DuPage board members who opted not to participate in the IMRF. "Who’s to say what everyone does during the week? We should turn in a log book and justify it."

In the private sector, attorneys, consultants and other professionals must document how they spend their time. County Board Chairman Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst) says he would be in favor of requiring board members to do the same.

"I think it’s important to find some sort of system of accountability," he says.

In a resolution, the board states the part-time job takes at least 1,000 hours a year, but officials aren’t required to record or verify the number of hours they work, confirms Johnna Kelly, a board spokeswoman.

An IMRF auditor "reviews participation for . . . elected officials, to determine if they meet the [1,000 hour] standard," IMRF spokeswoman Linda Horrell says in an email.

But "meeting the hourly standard refers to the number of hours a position is expected to require," she adds. "For an elected position, that is the number of hours the office requires to do the job correctly."

Because the county doesn’t track the officials’ hours, the IMRF has no way of accurately verifying how much a board member works. Theoretically, an elected county official could work 500 hours a year and still qualify if he or she didn’t reveal the shortfall.

Kelly says all but three of the 19 DuPage County board members participate in IMRF. Besides Enger, Tony Michelassi (D-Aurora) and Robert Larsen (R-Wheaton) also opted out of the program.

"I felt the pension plan was overly generous for elected officials working a part-time position," says Larsen, who was elected last year.

DuPage County Board members participate in what’s commonly known as ECO, or the "elected county official" pension program, part of IMRF.

They become vested after eight years and after 20 years they’re eligible to receive 80 percent of their final year’s salary. By comparison, other IMRF participants have to work twice as long for a smaller benefit – 40 years to receive 75 percent of their highest consecutive 48 months of salary in the last decade of work.

In August, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill that closed the ECO program to new officials but the changes don’t affect current board members.

DuPage County Board Member John Curran, the panel’s vice chairman, didn’t participate in IMRF in his first two years in office. But he reconsidered because of the challenging workload –he says he spends more than 1,500 hours a year on the job. 

"I would have no problem documenting my time spent on DuPage County matters for IMRF but they do not require nor request such documentation," Curran says.

Even so, Curran now says he’d be in favor of stripping away pensions for board members.

What’s more, he says he had second thoughts about participating in the pension program and approached the IMRF earlier this year to ask if he could opt out. But, he says he was told he couldn’t.

"Once you’re in, you’re in," Horrell confirms.

The only way out: leaving office.

These stories were written and reported by BGA investigator Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.

About the Author

Andrew Schroedter

Andrew Schroedter was a senior investigator at the BGA, responsible for covering, among other topics, criminal justice, municipal finance and city and suburban government. His investigative projects were featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, CBS2, NBC5, among others, and been referenced by The New York Times, The New Yorker, CNN, The Economist, National Public Radio and more.