St. Clair County Jury Commissioner Richard Effinger believes health and retirement benefits provided to board members like himself draw better workers, though critics question the county spending more than $1 million on such benefits for 86 part-time employees and politicians.
County Board members, attorneys, assistant public defenders, assistant state's attorneys, jury commissioners, East St. Louis Election Board commissioners, nurses and others received full benefits for working part-time with the county. County officials declined to give the actual cost for individuals receiving health benefits, but said the average cost per employee was $10,280 in 2012.
The county does not have a minimum wage level for part-time employees to receive benefits. For example, Effinger only earned $153 in wages but received full benefits.
Effinger said his wages were lower than the county's two other jury commissioners, who made about $1,400 and $1,600 last year, because he paid to include family members on his health insurance plan. County officials say an invoice of Effinger's work was unavailable.
David Merriman, an economics expert with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, questioned whether the cost of the benefits was justified.
"This is troubling," Merriman said. "It is quite reasonable (for taxpayers) to ask what the justification is for this benefit."
Effinger said jury commissioners are tasked with ensuring qualified people make up a fair jury pool in the county courts. He said it is a time-consuming process with commissioners working twice a month and remaining on-call.
"I think you are going to get more qualified people (offering benefits)," Effinger said. "It is an incentive and I believe it's a fair incentive. ... I work hard at it and I like it."
Effinger is also a member of the county's Public Building Commission -- whose members do not receive health and retirement benefits.
St. Clair County spent more than $1.07 million providing such benefits last year -- about $872,000 more than the combined cost of four neighboring counties. The figures exclude costs mandated by state law.
County Board Chairman Mark Kern said the county saves money by paying insurance for its employees. However, some County Board members and experts believe the benefits should be re-examined.
"The county's medical insurance is self-funded so basically we are paying ourselves those fees," Kern said, noting the County Board has lowered its property tax rate the past several years. "The county administers health benefits. Some years it could put in less, other years more. Part of the self-insurance is we buy a policy and if someone has a high-cost illness or incident, then that's covered by the county's policy. It's an efficient program and it has worked out well for us."
County Board member Nick Miller questions extending full benefits to so many part-time employees because of the burden to taxpayers. He has declined the option to get health benefits from the county but did receive a $173 contribution to his retirement fund.
Miller said the local policy was similar to the state policy that triggered the state of Illinois' pension crisis.
The cost of providing part-time employees with full health benefits cost taxpayers more than $801,000 last year and the cost is rising, according to records obtain by the News-Democrat through the Freedom of Information Act. The county averaged $8,500 for each of the 78 employees provided the benefit in 2010 -- a difference of more than $200,000 between 2010 and 2012.
The cost of providing retirement benefits to such employees topped $270,000 in 2012 -- about $210,000 of which went to 33 part-time elected officials.
Taxpayers should view extending benefits similarly to increasing pay, according to employee benefits expert Darren Lubotsky also with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
"Both lead to increased compensation," Lubotsky said. "Whether it is better in a given circumstance to increase, or decrease, salary or benefits depends on the objectives of the county and taxpayers."
Cost dwarfs neighboring counties
The only part-time employees with Madison County given the option to have health and retirement benefits are County Board members, and assistant state's attorneys and public defenders.
Madison County spent about $177,000 providing benefits to those employees and elected officials in 2012 -- a difference of more than $895,000 compared to St. Clair County. Madison and St. Clair counties are nearly identical in population size, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Madison County allows the state's attorney and public defender to make an exception in giving the benefits assistants to retain experienced attorneys on staff, according to Madison County Administrator Joseph Parente. The costs break down to $106,645 in health benefits and $70,136 in retirement benefits.
Aside from Madison County, the other two counties closest in population to St. Clair County have limits to offering benefits to part-time employees. Employees of Winnebago and McHenry counties near the Wisconsin border must work 30 hours per week or meet criteria set by state law, respectively, before receiving any benefits.
Smaller, rural counties surrounding St. Clair and Madison counties spent much less and do not provide health benefits to part-time employees, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
It is common nationally for county governments with more than 200 employees to provide full health benefits to part-time employees, according to Emilia Istrate with the National Association of Counties.
Istrate said a study of counties offering health benefits in 2009 found 59 percent of large counties, such as St. Clair, provide full-time health benefits to part-time employees. The study did not address counties providing retirement benefits to part-time employees.
Lawmakers set the benefits
Merriman criticized the practice of County Board members setting their own benefits policy.
"It is troubling to have people set the policy for their own benefits -- in those cases a policy should be developed to make sure the benefit is reasonable and consistent with other similar situations," Merriman said.
Taxpayers paid about $529,000 to provide health and retirement benefits last year to 33 County Board members and four Board of Review members in St. Clair County last year. The cost breaks down to more than $318,000 in health benefits and about $210,000 in retirement benefits.
St. Clair County Board has 29 members. The additional board members receiving benefits stem from the transition of an election year.
Kern said compensation for all elected officials is determined months before any election, according to state law.
"So that if a board member is voting on this policy, then voters have a chance to reward or punish those who vote for policies voters are not in favor of," Kern said.
Kern said the County Board members earn the benefits because they attend multiple meetings each month, are continually "on call" and are responsible for a $186 million budget. He added the board also froze the pay of all elected officials for the next four years.
In Madison County, seven board members received health benefits and 22 received retirement benefits in 2012. The total cost of the benefits was about $83,000 -- $47,411 in health costs and $35,557 in retirement benefits.
In McHenry County, County Board members are considered full-time employees and receive full benefits. While in Winnebago County, board members must pay for their own medical benefits.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2501. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DanKelleyBND.