'Bleeding the taxpayers dry': Investigation looks at retirement benefits for county part-timers

News-DemocratJuly 21, 2013 

Officials with Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund are investigating whether dozens of part-time employees working for St. Clair County, mostly attorneys, received retirement benefits even though they may not have worked enough hours to qualify.

The problem is St. Clair County officials do not track the hours worked by 45 part-timers to ensure they can participate in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, according to a response from county officials to a Freedom of Information Act request from the News-Democrat.

Investigators with the retirement fund will now determine whether those employees should be kicked out of the fund and will also audit the county as a whole, according to IMRF spokeswoman Linda Horrell. The IMRF investigation was spurred by a News-Democrat analysis of part-time employees with St. Clair County who receive retirement benefits.

St. Clair County Board member Frank Heiligenstein, a Democrat representing Freeburg, said he welcomed the audit.

"I think it makes a lot of sense," Heiligenstein said. "Since no one is doing it internally, IMRF should do this audit to see if these employees are justified under the system."

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern and County Administrator Dan Maher could not be reached for comment.

The employees include civil attorneys, assistant public defenders, assistant state's attorneys, jury commissioners and commissioners with the East St. Louis Election Board and a legal clerk. The county contributed nearly $150,000 to such employees' retirement plans in the past three years; $52,500 in 2012, $52,400 in 2011 and $44,900 in 2010.

County Board member Nick Miller, a Republican from Lebanon, said the county has a long history of political patronage and he was concerned those part-timers received the retirement benefits because of political connections.

"It's obvious that some county officials have not done their due diligence to make sure that these various part-time employees receiving IMRF benefits, specifically the politically connected lawyers, actually meet the guidelines put forth to qualify for retirement benefits," Miller said. "The Democrats have used retirement benefits as a way to reward their political buddies for decades and it's the taxpayers that have been presented the bill."

Officials in neighboring Madison, Clinton, Monroe and Randolph counties were found to track the hours of part-time employees participating in the municipal retirement fund, according to information obtained by the News-Democrat through Freedom of Information Act requests.

For example, Madison County has six assistant state's attorneys and five assistant public defenders. County officials audit their payroll records at least every two years to make sure employees receiving retirement benefits meet the fund's standards, Madison County Administrator Joe Parente said.

St. Clair County employees must work 600 hours annually to qualify to participate in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. Attorneys enrolled in the retirement plan must meet additional standards, according to Horrell.

When an attorney is enrolled in IMRF, an IMRF official will call the employer to ensure the additional standards are met. Some of the guidelines to enroll attorneys include making sure the employee works in the building and receives other benefits, such as paid vacation days. An attorney also should not work for a private law practice.

A News-Democrat review of the retirement benefits of part-time county employees found multiple conflicts with IMRF standards. The findings include:

* St. Clair County does not track the number of hours worked for 15 civil attorneys, 15 assistant public defenders, eight assistant state's attorneys, three members of the East St. Louis Election Commission, three jury commissioners and a legal clerk.

* At least 10 civil attorneys have a private law practice or work for a law firm.

* All 45 of the part-timers received medical insurance but did not receive vacation or sick days like full-time employees.

* 13 attorneys and commissioners did not earn enough even at the state's minimum wage ($8.25 per hour) to have worked 600 hours in 2012. Before taxes and other withdrawals, a person earning minimum wage would make $4,950 for 600 hours of work.

The average annual earnings of all 45 employees was about $8,860 in 2012. The hourly rate of pay of the employees was not available.

The retirement benefits are not extended to all part-time employees working for the county. Nearly 50 employees working less than the required 600 hours did not have contributions made to their retirement fund in 2012.

"The citizens of St. Clair County deserve to know why nearly 50 part-time employees weren't offered the retirement benefits while the other 45 were," Miller said. "I expect a thorough investigation will provide the answer."

IMRF is reliant upon municipal officials to ensure participating employees meet the set standards, Horrell said. The fund manages the retirement benefits of about 275,000 members from nearly 3,000 cities, counties, townships and other units of governments in Illinois. The fund was created by the state legislature and began operating in 1941.

Municipal contributions to employees' retirement benefits are collected through a separate tax rate on residents' property tax bills. For example, St. Clair County collected about $4,428,000 in property tax revenue (nearly 14 percent of the total tax revenue collected) to meet the obligations of its employees' retirement benefits in 2013.

Employees working more than 600 hours annually are required by state law to contribute 4.5 percent of their paycheck to the plan. The employee contributions are also withheld from their total earnings reported on state and federal income tax filings.

Municipal contributions cannot be refunded and must remain in a designated account for the municipality's employees, Horrell said.

Miller said he strongly encourages IMRF to not stop digging after auditing the county.

"They need to take a good, long look at all of the municipalities and townships within the county too, because there are a lot of municipal legal positions filled by a few hand-picked, Democrat Party preferred lawyers," Miller said. "They've managed for decades to make a good living bleeding the taxpayers dry, whether it's through multiple generous salaries, health care, or retirement benefits."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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