Six-Figure Public Servants

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Some public employees make more in retirement than they did on the job. Hundreds of them in Illinois are now being paid six-figure pensions.

The top pension paid to a public employee in the state of Illinois last year was nearly $1,000 per day, more than $350,000 a year in retirement pay to a single public employee. But he is not alone. Every year thousands of people find out that the public payroll can be very rewarding, even after their careers are over.

What do former Illinois governors Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, George Ryan and ex-senate president Phil Rock all have in common? Not one of them is in the top 100 highest drawing pensioners in the state of Illinois.

Even the pension of former U.S. president Bill Clinton is less than many of Illinois top state pensioners. So who are these 100 retired Illinois employees currently paid the highest state pensions?

"Ninety-four are educators," said Bill Zettler, state pension critic.

Zettler started compiling pension stats five years ago after he questioned how his suburban school district was spending money. What he found stunned him.

"There are over 1.100 teachers who have pensions of over $111,000 a year and they can retire at age 55," said Zettler.

Zettler's findings, drawn from public records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, are posted by the Champion Foundation that fights public spending abuse and works for educational system reform.

Zettler says many people have a misconception that school teachers are poorly paid. While the average pay for a teacher in Illinois is about $57,000 dollars a year, nearly 3,500 teachers make more than $100,000 year. Most work only nine months a year.

Consider the former drama teacher at Stevenson High School who was paid $181,000 in his last year. The drama teacher's pension starts at $95,000 a year.

Official records show that 18 former state employees -- all of them university or public school educators -- each receive more than $200,000 a year in pension benefits. Most of it is covered by Illinois taxpayers.

"I don't blame the teachers for taking it. I blame the school boards for allowing it to happen. You have four soccer moms and dads on the school board with no concept many times of business practices," said Zettler.

Five men receive the largest public pensions in Illinois, all from their careers with the University of Illinois:

  • Dr. Jacob Wilensky, a glaucoma expert - almost $242,000 a year pension.

  • former Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson - $250,000 a year pension.

  • Dr. Mahmood Mafee, a nueroradiologist - $265,000 a year pension.

  • Dr. Riad Barmada, a retired orthopedic surgery professor - $333,000 a year pension.

  • UIC Dr. Tapas K. Das Gupta, top pensioner in Illinois - currently being paid $358,000 a year.

    "There is nothing the matter with a good pension. The problem we have in the State of Illinois is politicians and governors for far too long have made promises to pay out but not contribute on an annual basis and left the taxpayers holding the bag," said Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington.

    Downstate Senator Bill Brady says six-figure pensions are necessary to recruit top educators and researchers.

    "This is why we have to move to a 401K-type system. We make a percentage contribution to their payroll, they make a percentage contribution at the end of the day; we invest it for them, we keep the cost down, they get their pay and it keeps costs down and it doesn't look like a scam and it certainly isn't," Brady said.

    Officials of the state retirement systems say that the majority of college and public school retirees receive modest pensions, not the six-figure annual payouts that are prompting calls for a switch to a 401K retirement plan.

    "To turn the argument and point it at these individual's pensions confuses the issue, because that doesn't address what the problem is in the State of Illinois, which is the 40.7 billion unfunded liability which will not be solved by switching to a 401K type of benefit plan," said Jourlande Gabriel, Illinois Retirement Securities Initiative.

    Pensions are based on an employees salary the last four years before retirement. In some cases, huge raises have been handed out in those years, pumping up the pension. What that means is that Illinois pensioners who live into their 70s or 80s will collect millions, far more in retirement than they ever did on the job.

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