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Outrageous pension system exposed again

Sunday, December 03, 2006
Daily Herald

Even by Cook County standards, Bobbie Steele’s double play is astonishingly brazen.

Steele, a Cook County commissioner for 20 years, was appointed by colleagues in July to fill in as county board president. This decision came after then-board President John H. Stroger’s family finally got around to divulging that the stroke he had suffered three months earlier would prevent him from completing his term.

At the time, Steele said she would not seek the board presidency in the November election but would stand for re-election to her commissioner’s seat. Steele did nothing to particularly distinguish herself during her four-month stint as president, but she did not commit any significant blunders or offenses either. So far, so good.

Fast forward now to this past week. Steele, having won re-election to the board on Nov. 7, announced that she’d had a change of heart — she won’t be serving her new term after all. She’ll retire. If this were the end of the story, Steele’s announcement might merit a minor rebuke for telling constituents she would be serving them again only to inform them right after they voted for her that she wouldn’t be representing them.

But the story gets worse. Why is Steele retiring instead of serving a sixth term as a commissioner? Because — thanks to Illinois‘ asinine pension laws — retiring from the position of board president enables her to draw a far larger pension. Steele was paid $85,000 a year as a commissioner, and had she returned to that job she eventually would have retired to a pension based on that salary. But her annual pay rate as board president, had she served a full year, would have been $170,000. By retiring while she still held the president’s gavel, she boosted her annual pension to $136,000 — never mind that she kept the board president’s chair warm for only four short months. Taxpayers will support Steele to the tune of $51,000 more in her retirement than she ever drew for a full year of work. She also draws a $13,000 annual pension as a retired teacher.

Steele’s blatant exploitation of the system is offensive enough, but the greater affront is the utter irresponsibility of state lawmakers who refuse to alter a system that allows public employees and elected officials to rip off taxpayers in this way.

But that’s not all. Steele has decided that the best person to fill the commissioner spot she has left vacant is her son. This is the story of John and Todd Stroger — passing down a public office as if it were a family heirloom — all over again. And Steele will get away with this, too, because she has the votes among her Democratic ward committeemen to do it.

Bobbie Steele retires with a $136,000 pension after acting as county board president for four months. Former Gov. George Ryan would have drawn a $197,000 annual pension had his conviction not nullified it. This is outrageous. It’s past time for all Illinois residents to e-mail and call their state legislators and insist — insist — that public pensions be made reasonable and sustainable, and that expensive loopholes be closed up tight.



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