Could County Board members be kicked out of pension plan?

News-DemocratFebruary 5, 2014 

AP GRAPHICS

A state pension fund has ruled that St. Clair County jury commissioners, who work part time, are no longer eligible to receive retirement benefits.

Auditors with the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund also have asked St. Clair County Board members to prove they work enough hours to be eligible to receive retirement benefits.

The request follows an IMRF review of county employees to ensure they met a requirement that workers put in a minimum 600 hours a year before participating in the retirement fund.

IMRF officials say they are still reviewing whether county attorneys with "extremely low earnings" should receive retirement benefits as well.

An employee must work an average of 11 1/2 half hours per week to meet the IMRF threshold. The county's three jury commissioners are responsible for ensuring qualified people make up a fair jury pool in the county courts. They work twice a month and remain on-call.

Jury Commissioner Lou Ann Niemann said she understands why she will no longer receive retirement benefits and submitted a letter to county officials in the summer stating she did not work enough hours to participate in IMRF.

The county's two other jury commissioners, Rick Effinger and Lynn Ellison, could not be reached for comment.

The commissioners earn a salary of between $1,400 and $1,600 annually, and the county paid in about $190 for each into the retirement fund in 2012. Employees also must pay 4 1/2 percent of their salaries into the fund. Commissioners, attorneys and board members also have the option of receiving county-funded health insurance.

County Board Chairman Mark Kern, a Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

IMRF manages retirement benefits for nearly 3,000 municipalities and is reliant upon municipal officers to ensure participating employees meet the set standards.

County Board member Nick Miller, a Republican representing Lebanon, said he was very curious to see the results of IMRF's review of attorney retirement benefits.

"I'm glad to hear IMRF is taking a long, serious look at this issue," Miller said. "I also hope IMRF casts a wider net and takes a good, long look at employees already retired and receiving benefits that perhaps shouldn't be."

County records show 27 of the 29 St. Clair County Board members received retirement benefits through IMRF in 2012. County Board members have an annual salary of about $19,400 and can earn up to nearly $7,300 in retirement benefits per year.

IMRF officials have received documents from the county detailing the hours worked by elected officials, according to IMRF spokesperson John Krupa. IMRF is still reviewing the documents, which were sent instead of having board members sign an IMRF form certifying they worked more than 600 hours in a year.

County Board members attend one monthly meeting of the full board and several committee meetings. In the past, however, they have said that they put in untold hours dealing with constituents' problems.

Anyone who makes false statements or permits others to make false records in an attempt to defraud IMRF faces felony charges under state law.

Attorneys enrolled in the retirement plan must meet additional standards along with working more than 600 hours per year. For example, attorneys must not work for a private law practice at the time.

A News-Democrat review found at least 10 civil attorneys receiving retirement benefits through IMRF also have a private law practice or work for a law firm. In addition, several attorneys did not earn enough even at the state's minimum wage ($8.25 per hour) to have worked 600 hours in 2012.

St. Clair County has tentatively agreed that certain employees who do not qualify for IMRF participation were "inadvertently" enrolled in the program, according to IMRF spokeswoman Kristin Ellertson.

Those employees will no longer be eligible to participate in IMRF. The retirement fund will remove their service credit and refund their contributions.

The county's contributions to employees' retirement funds are collected through a separate tax rate on property tax bills. In 2013, the county collected more than $4.4 million in property tax revenue to meet the obligations of its employees' retirement benefits -- about 14 percent of total tax revenue collected.

IMRF is locally funded and the best-funded retirement benefits plan in the state. Many consider the plan to be a model for future plans, Ellertson said.

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

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