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Pension windfall for Steele is no accident of law

Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

"I did not make the law, and if I become the beneficiary of it, it's by no doing of my own"

--Bobbie Steele, commenting in a TV interview last week about how her four-month stint as interim Cook County Board president will allow her monthly pension benefit to double when she retires.

Actually, no.

It will be her doing.

The tiny section of the half-million word state pension law that Steele has indicated she'll use to calculate her retirement benefits is subtitled "Alternative annuity for county officers," italics mine.

"Alternative," as in her choice. If Steele didn't make the choice, in writing, to participate in this special offer during the 20 years when she was a county commissioner--I called to ask, but her spokeswoman didn't know and didn't get back to me--then she'll have to make it before she resigns next week. To do so, she'll have to notify the Cook County Employees' Annuity & Benefit Fund and retroactively contribute small percentages of her salary from previous years.

Then--it's a rare and beautiful thing if you're an accidental chief executive--that very law, reserved exclusively for elected office-holders, will let her receive 80 percent of her "salary at the time of termination of service."

Since being sworn in Aug. 1 to fill out the final months of ailing former President John Stroger's four-year term, Steele has been paid at the rate of $170,000 a year. That's twice what she earned as a commissioner.

The result will be an annual retirement pension starting at $136,000 a year, twice the pension she would have received if she had returned to her seat on the board of commissioners, as she earlier promised voters she would.

The conventional retirement formula--the one that applies for an ordinary county employee or for an elected officer who doesn't grab the tasty alternative cookie off the bottom shelf--is less generous. It calls for benefits to be calculated based on a 48-month (or four-year) salary average.

That makes a certain amount of sense, right? Averaging allows employees to profit reasonably from promotions without encouraging any of that outrageous funny business we've seen in which end-of-career chess moves abetted by sleazy, cynical insiders create pension jackpots for other sleazy, cynical insiders.

Using an average salary figure rather than the salary on the last day results in a benefit that's in the pension spirit--assuring that retirees not suffer a drastic drop in lifestyle after many years of service.

Surely the legislators of yore who crafted this law for elected county officials (40 ILCS 5/9(underscore)121.6 if you're keeping score at home) didn't intend for a temporary seat-warmer such as Bobbie Steele to be paid 60 percent more in retirement than she would have been just five months before she retired!

Or did they?

"We don't know," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a watchdog organization that advocates for reform in the public pension system. "But in general, it's obvious that they wanted elected officials like themselves to receive very generous benefits."

Here's a curious and damning tale:

Six years ago, the General Assembly amended a nearly identical passage in state pension law that applies to elected officials in every Illinois county except Cook County. That amendment instituted a version of the four-year average rule.

It was the perfect time for our solons in Springfield to change the law applying to Cook County too, but, well, gosh, they didn't get around to it.

Even if they had, it wouldn't have made a difference in the case of Bobbie Steele, Msall said. Pension reforms are not retroactive.

Still, better late than never. Which is why Msall and reform-minded County Commissioner Forrest Claypool are among those who say they will be urging legislators to close the loophole through which Bobbie Steele has chosen to drag an extra $68,000 a year and more of your money for the rest of her life.

The law says she's entitled to it. But everybody knows she hasn't earned it.

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