ARLINGTON HEIGHTS — A statewide pension system for local government and school district retirees is paying out bonuses that cost taxpayers more than $41 million last year, according to a newspaper's review of pension data.
The (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald added up the costs after examining Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund data that it obtained through an open records request.
Known as the "13th payment," the bonuses paid each July are on top of monthly pension checks and have escaped scrutiny during the Legislature's efforts to overhaul Illinois' heavily indebted pension systems.
The average bonus for 2013 was around $340, but payments went as high as $7,600, the newspaper said.
"Retiring from a career in the public sector shouldn't mean you get to win a little lottery jackpot every year," said Madeleine Doubek, chief operating officer of the voter-advocacy group Reboot Illinois. "More than a few people are going to think any type of taxpayer-funded bonus for someone no longer working that is above and beyond their monthly pension is ridiculous."
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz said IMRF was of little concern to lawmakers when they were crafting the state's pension overhaul bill because it is well-funded and does not rely on support from the state. Still, she said the issue of bonuses was worth reviewing.
"Can we take a look at it and see if it's something we can impact? Yes," she said.
The newspaper also found that in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes paid by residents of one county went toward pension bonuses for retirees elsewhere who never worked for that county.
The situation was similar for some school districts, including Elgin Area District U-46, which is northwest of Chicago. Taxpayers there spent nearly $350,000 for retiree bonuses last year, yet the district's former employees received less than $300,000.
"I don't want to penalize our retirees who have given service to the district and taught and cared for our children, but my main concern has to be the children in the classroom," U-46 school board member Traci O'Neal Ellis told the newspaper. "There's so much more that $350,000 could be doing."