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Verbal punches fly in Oak Lawn over pension knockout

  • Written by Brett Rush

Tensions regarding the Oak Lawn Village Board’s decision last month to end pension participation for elected officials boiled over Tuesday night into a series of heated verbal exchanges between trustees that had the mayor reaching repeatedly for her gavel.

Trustee Robert Streit (District 3), who last month voted along with Trustee Carol Quinlan (District 5) against eliminating the pension program, fired the opening salvo by calling the measure nothing more than a political ploy meant to garner appreciation from voters eager for pension reform.

“First of all, I want to be absolutely clear that I support pension reform,” Streit said. “What I do not support are political gimmicks that may sound good, but actually do nothing.”

Streit continued his argument by claiming the village’s contribution to the pension fund for elected officials is so small that its effect on village finances is negligible.

“In fact, while our general fund budget is about $50 million, to fund all of the trustee’s pensions costs less than $2,000 per year, which is .004 percent, or four one-thousands of a percent,” he said.

The pension fund to which the village contributes – the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) – is funded at 86 percent and is not indicative of the state’s unfunded pension liability, Streit contended.

The IMRF is not funded by the state, but is comprised of contributions from participating workers, park districts, and municipalities excluding Chicago and Cook County. The fund possesses about $25 billion in assets.

Unfunded liabilities in Illinois include contributions to police and fire pensions, teacher pensions, and Chicago and Cook County employees. According to Moody’s Investment Services, Illinois leads all states in unfunded pension liabilities, which it estimates at $133 billion.

Despite interjections from Mayor Sandra Bury and village Clerk Jane Quinlan over the appropriateness of his remarks during a new business report, Streit upped the verbal ante by insinuating Trustee Mike Carberry’s vote for the measure was hypocritical. Carberry served as the appointed state representative in Illinois’ 36th House District from March 2010 to January 2011.

“This is not surprisingly a ‘Springfield,’ because it sounds good, but it solves nothing,” Streit thundered on. “And I say ‘not surprisingly,’ because [Carberry] is a former representative who during his term in Springfield never proposed pension reform, where he actually could have done something that was meaningful.”

As Streit finished his report, he turned the question of pension reform to Bury, who responded by highlighting Streit’s apparently lackadaisical communication.

“Trustee Streit, when you do have questions, I have email, other people have email,” Bury stated. “We in fact have sent you emails that you don’t acknowledge or respond to, so please don’t imply there’s lack of communication on our part.”

Trustee Terry Vorderer (District 4) also took time to clarify his reasons for supporting the measure, arguing it served as a gesture of goodwill in future pension dealings.

“I voted for eliminating the pension, but I didn’t do it as a solution for the pension crisis that we all know exists in the state,” Vorderer declared. “I did it for the symbolism of us giving up our pension rights so that we can ask others [the same] as we deal with this crisis. It’s a lot easier to say ‘you have to give up something and I’ve given up something.’”

Carberry, meanwhile, during his report fired back at Streit, stating the structure of the pension system could allow a former elected official to cash in by taking a full-time position with a municipality. By working four years in a full-time pension supported position, such an official would reap the average salary of those final four years of employment – not the comparatively small sum earned during his elected service, Carberry clarified.

“This happens all over the state, and it’s been happening for years,” Carberry said. “It’s an unfair pension liability. For a part-time politician, why in the world should you get an opportunity to get a 30-year pension based on a full-time salary when you never paid into it? In the first year, you’ve already taken out more than you ever put in.”

An interruption by Streit then resulted in a flurry of exchanges between the two, with Carberry demanding an apology.

“You know what you should apologize for?” Carberry insisted. “You say ‘poster-boy’ one more time, that’s what you should apologize for.”

Bury struck the dais with the gavel several times to end the verbal altercation, however, Streit attempted to continue the fight at the conclusion of Carberry’s report. His final point was quelled by Bury.

“I’m going to gavel this personal attack down and we’re going to move on to general village matters,” Bury concluded.