Belleville city attorneys doubled pension benefits with lump sum payments

News-DemocratJune 23, 2013 

— Two former Belleville city attorneys more than doubled their pensions by paying a lump sum to cover years when they worked for the city but weren't enrolled in the pension system.

Robert Sprague and Michael "Patrick" Flynn, who each represented the city for more than 30 years, now collect annual pensions of about $86,763 and $41,955, respectively.

Without paying for these years, Sprague's pension would be about $36,874 per year and Flynn's pension would be about $17,426 per year.

Sprague and Flynn paid for "omitted" service years. These are years in which they qualified to participate in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, but the city did not enroll them.

In March 2004, Sprague paid $36,663 for 16 years and four months of service for his work with Belleville from January 1977 to April 1993.

Flynn paid a total of $41,091 for 19 years of service for his work from May 1974 to April 1993. Flynn paid $28,062 in June 2004 and $13,028 in June 2005.

Sprague and Flynn could not be reached for comment.

IMRF calculates pensions for retired city employees by using a formula that includes an employee's final rate of earning and their years of service.

The final rate of earning is based on an employee's highest 48 months of pay from their last 10 years of service.

Critics question IMRF criteria

City Clerk Dallas Cook criticizes IMRF for allowing Sprague and Flynn to pay for omitted service.

Sprague and Flynn both made a one-time investment that would pay for itself in the first year they retire and get pension benefits, Cook said.

And, when Sprague and Flynn bought the omitted service, then the city had to contribute money toward their pensions for those years.

But Cook believes city attorneys do not meet IMRF criteria. Cook said past attorneys, and current City Attorney Garrett Hoerner and Assistant City Attorney Brian Flynn, do not work enough hours.

Brian Flynn said an employer can't stop an employee who works 1,000 hours from participating in IMRF.

In a letter dated May 28, IMRF told Hoerner and Brian Flynn they are not eligible to participate in the fund. The letter did not explain why the attorneys do not qualify.

Cook said he will not sign an affidavit supporting Hoerner and Brian Flynn's participation in IMRF.

"Until they can show me they do or start logging hours, there's no way I'm going to," Cook said. "The hours just don't add up."

Former Belleville City Clerk Linda Fields signed an affidavit in January stating the attorneys are each paid a salary, participate in all fringe benefits offered to all city employees and are covered by the city's unemployment insurance and worker's compensation.

Fields served as city clerk from 1997 until this April, when she lost to Cook in the April 9 election.

Cook, a political independent, said Fields confirmed the attorneys work 1,000 hours without proof.

Cook said Fields did so because she belongs to the same Belleville Good Government party as Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, who appoints the city attorneys with council approval.

The majority of aldermen on the 16-member City Council are of Eckert's party. Seven aldermen are independents.

Cook, and some aldermen, believe city attorneys are contracted positions, not city employees, and should not receive additional benefits.

Cook, who participates in IMRF, said full-time employees, such as his own city clerk position, should qualify.

Political history

Brian Flynn said it's curious that Cook is concerned because the attorneys who worked under Cook's father, former Belleville Mayor Rodger Cook, participated in IMRF.

The attorneys who served in Rodger Cook's administration, however, are not receiving pensions from IMRF: Roger Vetter died; Larry Brockman did not serve more than four years and is not vested with IMRF; and Phillip Montalvo took a refund of his IMRF member contributions.

Brian Flynn also said Sprague and Mike Flynn only learned attorneys were eligible to participate in IMRF because of Rodger Cook's attorneys, who were the first city attorneys to join IMRF.

Dallas Cook said that just because his father's attorneys joined IMRF doesn't mean that Sprague, the Flynns and Hoerner have to. And, what matters is his father's attorneys do not get pension benefits from IMRF now.

Mike Flynn served as either attorney or assistant city attorney for Belleville from 1974 to 2013, minus the four years that Rodger Cook served as mayor.

Sprague also did not serve as city attorney during Rodger Cook's administration from 1993-97.

After Rodger Cook's term, when Sprague and Mike Flynn were re-appointed to the attorney positions, they started participating in IMRF.

In recent years, Sprague and Mike Flynn made one-time payments to get credit for the years they served before 1993.

IMRF could not immediately say whether they contacted Sprague and Mike Flynn to pay for omitted years of service.

Dallas Cook said it benefits IMRF to have all eligible employees pay into the system for the health of the pension system.

"They want as many people to buy in as possible," Cook said.

Attorneys say they qualify

Hoerner and Brian Flynn, who already participate in IMRF through their work with the county, say they work at least 1,000 hours for Belleville though they represent other municipalities and public bodies.

Hoerner, and his Belleville law firm, Becker, Paulson, Hoerner & Thompson, represents the village of Cahokia and East St. Louis School District 189 on an hourly basis.

Brian Flynn, of the Belleville law firm Flynn, Guymon & Garavalia, also represents Fairmont City, Millstadt and Belleville Township. He is paid hourly in those roles and does not work enough hours to qualify for IMRF in those municipalities.

Brian Flynn said he contests Cook's previous comments that the attorneys are "greedy."

Hoerner and Brian Flynn are paid a salary from the city instead of billing hourly as attorneys do in other cities. The city pays Hoerner $109,647 annually and Brian Flynn's salary is $53,613.

Brian Flynn said he typically charges his municipal clients $200 an hour.

"If we assume I work 1,000 hours, that equates into $200,000," Brian Flynn said. "If I were greedy, I would request that the city compensate me in a manner which is consistent with how other city attorneys are paid, which is on an hourly basis."

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said it's clear both attorneys work more than 1,000 hours for the city and critics don't realize how much the city saves by paying them a salary rather than hourly.

Brian Flynn questions why IMRF is contesting his and Hoerner's eligibility when the city's previous attorneys qualified. Brian Flynn said he and Hoerner are new, but they are doing the same job as their predecessors.

Brian Flynn said that when his dad, Mike Flynn, and Sprague retired in the past year, IMRF reviewed their eligibility and member benefits extensively before approving the benefits.

Where do city leaders stand?

Hoerner and Brian Flynn say they plan to appeal IMRF's decision.

Last week, Hoerner proposed city contracts for himself and Brian Flynn that required the city to pay them for retirement and other benefits they do not receive.

The City Council removed the benefits clause before approving the contracts.

If council members had approved the benefits clause, the city would have had to pay Hoerner and Brian Flynn the amount of retirement benefits even if IMRF said the attorneys are ineligible.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

What is IMRF?

* Belleville, in its role as an employer, makes contributions to IMRF for employees who participate in the system.

* IMRF is not a state pension system, and unlike the state pension systems, IMRF does not face a significant shortfall.

* IMRF spokeswoman Linda Horrell said IMRF was 85 percent paid for at the end of 2012 and that taxpayers do not finance the bulk of IMRF pensions. "In fact, 60 cents of every dollar that IMRF pays in a pension comes from our investment earnings. Taxpayers (IMRF employers) contribute approximately 27 cents and members 13 cents," Horrell wrote in an email.

What aldermen say

Here is what Belleville city alderman have to say about whether the city attorney and assistant city attorney work at least 1,000 hours representing Belleville.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella: "A lot of people on the council are not used to dealing with those high salaries. We get sticker shock. But the truth is, that's a competitive price. I do look at the salary as the whole package. If they don't need the insurance, we should pay them the money."

Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt: "A thousand hours a year is roughly 20 hours a week. I wouldn't see how he wouldn't put that in. That's three hours a day. I would think he might end up putting up a lot more. I still think we're getting a great bargain if you look at cities like Fairview Heights that get billed by the hour."

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult: "I have consulted several of my attorney friends and they say it is impossible for them to do that. What they're saying is 20 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year. I don't that is realistic. I'd like to see their total billing hours. The attorneys do not work exclusively for Belleville."

Ward 4 Alderman Johnnie Anthony

"I'm going to go with the fact that just because the other ones did get it. I actually think they actually work more than a thousand hours. What happened with attorney Bob Sprague where he worked for the city for 30 years or something is an anomaly. These attorneys today probably won't."

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden: "Based on what the IMRF stated, they are not eligible. So why would we pay the equivalent of something they're not eligible for? To me, they're contract employees. As far as Mike Flynn and Mr. Sprague go ... I believe there should be an investigation into what ... made them eligible all these years."

Ward 6 Alderman Bob White: "I think right now what we really need to do is get a determination from the IMRF, if (the 1,000-hour requirement) is really the reason they denied their benefits. In the future, we have to be clear on what we think is a fair price to pay the city attorney and the assistant city attorney."

Ward 6 Alderman Paul Seibert: "I think what we did the other night is fine: Wait and see what the IMRF says. Everybody else got it. They're just going to check on it and see if they work a thousand hours. I'm sure they do. Litigation, my god, it takes hours sometimes. They'll probably go over 1,000, easy."

Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti: "If (City Attorney Garrett Hoerner's) denied, I think there's a contractual problem that may arise. But this guy's in private practice, he represents other government entities. If I'm contracting with Belleville getting $100,000 and I work for other municipalities, IMRF wouldn't be a big deal to me."

Ward 7 Alderwoman Lillian Schneider: "They drew up their own contract and they put in what they wanted. If you don't want the job, let somebody else have a shot at it. If they already get retirement somewhere else and insurance paid by their firm, it's like double dipping. If city employees can cut back, they can too. "

Ward 8 Alderman James Musgrove: "It doesn't matter what I think. Let (IMRF) figure it out. But we (aldermen) work a lot more than (1,000 hours). I write my own minutes. Before Planning and Zoning meetings, if an issue is in my area I go check on it. I took pictures of potholes today and I turn all those in to the Street Department."

Ward 1 Alderman Mike Heisler, Ward 3 Aldermen Kent Randle and Gabby Rujawitz, Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson, Ward 5 Alderman Phil Silsby and Ward 8 Alderman Joe Orlet could not be reached for comment.

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