Chicago Tribune | Watchdog group puts spotlight on six-figure pensions in Lake County

Jim Tobin and Jared Labell of Taxpayers United of America were featured by the Chicago Tribune discussing the public pensions of Lake County and Waukegan retirees.

Nearly 900 retirees from Lake County government, Lake County public schools and the College of Lake County collect six-figure annual pensions — including 14 whose pensions pay out more than $200,000 per year, according to a Chicago-based watchdog group.ctribart
“These people paid very little into their own pension funds to pay for the cost of their lavish, gold-plated pensions,” Taxpayers United of America president Jim Tobin said at a Chicago news conference last week. “That’s the key problem here. They’re just not paying enough into it. The pensions are ridiculous — that’s one of the problems. But the second problem is that they’re just not paying enough out of their own pockets.”
Last week, the group released data that included local retirees’ names, their annual pension amounts, their retirement ages, how much they paid into their pensions and their projected lifetime payouts. The data comes amid the ongoing debate over how to handle the state’s public pension system, which is estimated to be underfunded by nearly $105 billion.
Combined, there are 893 retirees from those groups earning pensions in excess of $100,000 annually, including 12 Lake County public schools retirees and two College of Lake County retirees whose annual pensions pay out more than $200,000 per year, according to the TUA data. Meanwhile, 743 Lake County public schools retirees, 113 College of Lake County retirees and 23 Lake County government retirees have annual pensions between $100,000 and $200,000, the group’s data showed.
No Waukegan municipal government retirees collect annual pensions over $100,000, according to the group’s data. TUA claims that statewide more than 11,000 public retirees are earning six-figure pensions.
According to TUA data, one retired educator from Lincolnshire-Prairie View District 103 paid $326,507 into the state’s retirement fund, retired at age 55 and began collecting an annual pension of $258,163. The TUA claims the lifetime payout for that pension, assuming a life expectancy of 85, could amount to more than $11.1 million. This would mean that the employee’s total contribution would represent 2.9 percent of the projected payout.
A list of the top 44 Waukegan pensions paid through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund — including those for Waukegan Park District employees but not police or fire personnel — found annual payouts that include $73,715 for a former city engineer who retired at age 57 and contributed $84,659 into municipal retirement funds.
One of the names on the list of Waukegan municipal government’s top pensioners was Ray Vukovich, who served as the city’s director of governmental services from 2001 to 2010 and retired at age 51. The TUA listed his annual pension at $70,171 after paying a total of $54,684 toward retirement funds.
Vukovich said he was not against the scrutiny, pointing out that he served in a position that was in the public arena and was paid under a budget that was approved as part of an open process. But he added that some of the individuals are facing criticism for participating in a system that was presented to them as a benefit of employment.
“It’s not fair from the standpoint that they followed the rules that were in place,” Vukovich said. “They paid into the system (and) when they were ready for retirement, they filed their paperwork and they’re receiving what the system set up for them. These are people who planned their lives around what they’d receive.
“Is the system perfect? No. Does it need fixing? Yes,” Vukovich said. “If I got a call from Springfield saying, ‘Would you volunteer to serve on a committee to discuss pension reform?’ I’d gladly do it. But this is a problem that didn’t get created in the last six months. It’s been 30 or 40 years in the making.”
The TUA has gone public with lists of retiree pensions in communities from Champaign to Dixon in recent months, and the group feels it’s an effective approach to name names, TUA operations director Jared Labell said..
“The idea isn’t to demonize teachers and these individual government employees, but to look at these individual payments and make them seem more real,” Labell said. “If you tell somebody that there are 11,000 retirees making six-figures, their eyes kind of glaze over. But when you see the actual numbers and say, ‘I know that guy or that woman,’ it (puts) a face to the growing problem in the state.”
But Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund Executive Director Louis W. Kosiba said he feels Taxpayers United of America has been engaging in “inflammatory (and) sensational” tactics to cast the entire idea of public pensions in a negative light by releasing lists of retirees drawing six-figure annual payouts.
“They certainly have a right to opine about the compensation (and) pensions of public employees,” Kosiba said, adding when you cherry-pick the high numbers, it looks terrible and “unsustainable.” You need to look at a more holistic approach.
Using the most recent audited, actuarial data from December 2013, Kosiba said the IMRF covers the pensions of 106,997 retirees, with the average annual benefit coming in at $13,758. He added that more than 5,300 IMRF members field less than $100 per month.
Information provided by the IMRF states that the organization is 97 percent funded with more than $34 billion in assets. Kosiba said that for every dollar paid to a fund retiree, 63 cents came from investment income, 25 cents from employers and 12 cents came from employee contributions.
“Yes, there are highly-compensated people in government, and the pensions are going to be a function of their longevity — the longer you work, the higher your pension is going to be. IMRF covers medical doctors, IMRF covers attorneys,” he said, adding that “taxpayers shouldn’t get the idea that they’re funding the entire pension.”
Kosiba also countered the notion that the group was not trying to “demonize” retirees, saying, “If they’re not trying to demonize anybody, they wouldn’t be putting these names out there.”
“At the end of the day, people in the public sector know that their (compensation) is out there,” Kosiba said, “but no one talks about pensions in the private sector. I feel everyone has a right to know how their dollars are spent by corporations, and some of them are monopolies. So it’s a little bit unfair.”
Labell and Tobin used the term “unsustainable” to describe Illinois’ pension system.
In Waukegan, the city’s comprehensive financial report for the 2013-14 fiscal year shows that the public contribution to municipal, police and fire pensions totaled more than $11.3 million. Mayor Wayne Motley responded by saying “it is an issue” that must be addressed.
“We can’t do a thing about it until the Legislature acts,” Motley said. “It’s broken — there’s no question about it, but I can’t fix it. It has to be fixed by the state Legislature.”
Motley — who noted that he draws a public pension himself, having retired from the Waukegan Police Department at age 51 in 2001 — added that “I wish I knew the answer to fixing it, because I would be on the Oprah Winfrey Show. But I don’t know.”
The TUA reiterated past recommendations to put newly-hired public employees into private 401(k) savings accounts, increase the percentage of salary contributed by current employees to the public-pension system, and increase the retirement age for full benefits, among other reforms. During last month’s budget address, Gov. Bruce Rauner also touted 401(k) options, along with other approaches that would include caps on high-salaried pensions and a raise in retirement age for benefits earned after July 2015.
“If they implement these recommendations, (current) pensions can be paid out,” Tobin said. “We’ve got to get the new people into 401(k) s, or there’s not going to be any way to save this thing.”