BELLEVILLE — A pension system for Illinois municipal employees says that Belleville's two new city attorneys are not eligible for pension benefits even though their predecessors were in the program.
In fact, former city attorney Robert Sprague collects more than $7,200 a month and assistant city attorney Patrick "Mike" Flynn gets $3,496 a month from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund after each served more than 30 years in Belleville.
City Attorney Garrett Hoerner and Assistant City Attorney Brian Flynn are not eligible for a pension because they do not work at least 1,000 hours a year, according to City Clerk Dallas Cook.
Linda Horrell, a spokeswoman for IMRF, said Hoerner and Flynn had to meet the same criteria as others in Belleville in order to enroll: Be a common law employee instead of an independent contractor and work at least 1,000 hours.
"We do not believe an attorney can have their own private practice and meet the hourly standard," Horrell said.
Cook, an independent elected to office in April, said there is no way Hoerner and Flynn each put in 1,000 hours a year doing work for the city while maintaining private practices and representing other government entities.
Cook said the city doesn't require the attorneys to log their hours, but he would ask them to if they enrolled in IMRF.
"In order to reform the pension system, we need local leaders to tell the truth and not base their actions in the best interest of their friends," Cook said.
Cook accused Mayor Mark Eckert of sidestepping the clerk's office to enroll Hoerner and Flynn in the IMRF pension program.
Eckert, of the Belleville Good Government Party, said Cook's allegations are not true.
Hoerner and Flynn both said they plan to work with IMRF to confirm eligibility, and will appeal IMRF's decision if necessary, because they work enough hours to qualify for pension benefits.
Eckert appointed Hoerner and Flynn to the positions in May with the consent of the City Council.
Cook said he is saving the city about $20,000 this year in employer contributions by keeping Hoerner and Flynn from participating in IMRF.
The city contributes up to 12 percent of each employee's salary into the fund. Presently, Hoerner earns $109,647 a year and Flynn earns $53,613.
Cook said that when his office submitted Hoerner and Flynn's applications to the IMRF's website, the applications were immediately denied.
Cook said that when Eckert found out, he had one of Cook's staff members resubmit Hoerner and Flynn's applications in a way that satisfied IMRF criteria for eligibility. Eckert denies he intervened.
Cook said the applications were approved the second time without his knowledge. Cook said he then reported the incident to IMRF.
In turn, the agency notified Hoerner and Flynn in a letter May 28 that they are not eligible to participate in the fund. The letter does not state why Hoerner and Flynn do not qualify.
Horrell said IMRF started to do employer audits in 2007 to see whether employers were providing correct information to IMRF.
"What we discovered is a lot of employers are confused about certain things and one of those things is employment of attorneys," Horrell said. "So now whenever an attorney is enrolled, we look at the enrollment."
In addition to serving as city attorney in Belleville, Hoerner, of the Belleville law firm Becker, Paulson, Hoerner & Thompson, represents a number of other government entities, including East St. Louis School District 189.
Flynn, of the Belleville law firm Flynn, Guymon & Garavalia, is also village attorney for Fairmont City and Millstadt. Flynn said he is paid hourly in those positions and does not work enough hours for those municipalities to qualify for IMRF participation.
Hoerner and Flynn both said their work for Belleville alone this year will be well beyond 1,000 hours, which amounts to about 20 hours a week. Hoerner said 40-hour weeks are not considered a lot of hours in his line of work and he works more than that every week.
Hoerner also said that when he represents clients such as the village of Cahokia or the East St. Louis School District, it is on a contractual, hourly basis.
And, Hoerner said he's not the only one working with those clients since there are eight lawyers in his Belleville law firm.
Eckert agreed. He said that attending City Council meetings and drafting ordinances are a small part of what the city attorneys do. The attorneys review contracts and ordinances, and give legal advice to the mayor, department heads and aldermen.
And while the attorneys are not representing Belleville in court cases every week, when they are in trial those weeks are definitely more than 40-hour weeks, Eckert said.
"Thank goodness we're not paying them on an hourly basis," Eckert said.
The city gave past attorneys a salary, and health and pension benefits. This practice differs from some other municipalities.
For example, Fairview Heights paid its most recent city attorney a monthly retainer of $2,400 to prepare for and attend city meetings and hold office hours with city leaders, according to Fairview Heights Finance Director Scott Borror. Additional services are billed at different rates, so the attorney charges $185 per hour for litigation, Borror said. In 2011, Fairview Heights spent $375,354 on legal bills.
The Fairview Heights city attorney is appointed by the mayor, not considered an employee, and does not receive health or pension benefits.
Flynn said the Belleville's legal costs would be significantly higher if attorneys billed hourly for their services.
In 2011, Belleville spent $201,894 for legal representation -- less than at least two other cities with smaller populations: Fairview Heights spent $375,354 and Collinsville spent $203,960.
Cook said the city might be saving in legal costs, but allowing Hoerner and Flynn to participate in IMRF if they're not truly eligible hurts taxpayers in the long run and cheats qualifying employees of a healthy pension system.
"They are killing the opportunities for everyone else," Cook said. "If they want to be greedy, they can be greedy. But it's not fair to all these hardworking employees who make a third of what they make and deserve pensions."
The state of Illinois is billions of dollars in the red in its various public pension funds, and pension reform was a contentious issue in this year's legislative session. IMRF has tightened eligibility criteria in recent years.
For example, Cook, who participates in IMRF as a full-time city clerk, said he joined IMRF as a Tier II member, following a new set of rules than those enrolled in IMRF before 2011 as part of Tier I.
Cook has to work 1,000 hours each year, put in 10 years to be vested and get full benefits at age 67. Tier I members are vested after eight years and qualify for full benefits at age 60.
Hoerner and Flynn already participate in IMRF as Tier I members through their work for St. Clair County.
Hoerner has contributed $2,142 to IMRF since 2010 to date through his work with the St. Clair County state's attorney's office. Flynn has contributed $2,900 to IMRF since 2010 to date through his work as a county public defender.
Cook said he doesn't believe the previous city attorneys, Sprague and Mike Flynn, who is Brian Flynn's father, should have qualified for IMRF participation either.
Mike Flynn served as either attorney or assistant city attorney for Belleville from 1974 to 2013, minus the four years that Roger Cook, who is Dallas Cook's father, served as mayor. Sprague also did not serve as city attorney during Roger Cook's administration, 1993-97.
When asked why previous Belleville city attorneys qualified for IMRF participation, Horrell, the IMRF spokeswoman, said "that might have been possible before (IMRF) had these audits."
"We depend on employers to send us accurate information that adhere to the pension code," Horrell said. "When we discovered there could be an area of confusion, going forward, we started looking at these things."
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.