Who are the 'Big Dogs' in 2017 – our list of the most highly compensated public employees in Illinois local government? It's a who's who of public servants – but most you've never heard of – who learned how to game the system for personal gain.
The latest salary and compensation data captured by our organization and posted at OpenTheBooks.com from fiscal year 2017 shows Illinois local governments needs far more scrutiny. With many Americans focused on Washington, D.C., citizens aren’t doing enough to stop taxpayer abuse in their own backyards, in their own neighborhoods.
In Illinois, 144 employees at local units of government made more than $190,000 and out-earned every governor. These highly compensated public employees work for municipalities, counties, health clinics, forest preserves, water, park, airport, and mass transit districts, and even some school districts.
See the highest to lowest 2017 municipal salaries here
Let’s consider a few areas in detail:
1. Village and city managers out-earn every governor of the 50 states
In Illinois, there are 89 small-town and village administrators receiving salaries that exceed $190,000. Last year, the top five pensionable salaries went to Michael Ellis ($273,289) – Village of Grayslake (pop. 21,101); Robert Kiely ($263,287) – City of Lake Forest (pop. 19,375); Richard Nahrstadt ($261,582) – Village of Northbrook (pop. 33,170); and two administrators from the Village of Rosemont (pop. 4,236), Patrick Nagle and Christopher Stephens ($255,648).
Rounding out the top 10 were William Wiet ($255,257) – City of Aurora (pop. 201,110); Reid Ottesen ($253,137) – Village of Palatine (pop. 69,350); Kenneth Schroth ($251,870) – City of Aurora (pop. 201,110); Michael Cassady ($248,281) – Village of Mt. Prospect (pop. 54,171); and Dane Bragg ($244,024) – Village of Buffalo Grove (pop. 41,346).
Not only are taxpayers forced to fund these administrators’ massive salaries, but, in some case, they also fund the pricey mortgages for their homes. Taxpayers are literally subsidizing housing expenses with loan forgiveness built into employment contracts.
For example, in Lake Bluff Village, village manager Drew Irvin received
a $200,000 housing loan when he took the job in 2007. In the same year, Deerfield Village Manager Kent Street signed his contract
, receiving a $100,000 housing loan. When asked, Street said
"the down payment requirements for moving to Deerfield were significant and this was part of the compensation agreement reached with the Mayor and the Village Board." We also asked Irvin for comment but received no response.
For small-town administrators, the compensation is sweet all the way up to the end of their service. For instance, before retiring at the end of 2017, Aurora Development Director William (Bill) Wiet received a $84,672 bump – up from $170,585 in 2016. His final year salary ($255,257) is pensionable, and taxpayers foot the bill.
Many other administrators swung hefty pay raises even without retirement on the horizon:
- Aurora Public Works Director Kenneth Schroth received a $55,000 pay raise as his salary spiked from $196,296 (2016) to $251,870 (2017). We asked for comment and an PR representative issued this response, citing a change in the city’s department size.
- In the tiny Village of Rosemont (pop. 4,200), Mayor Bradley Stephens’ salary shot from $169,999 (2016) to $222,960 (2017). This pay raise came after Stephens ran unopposed for re-election, adding another four-year term to his 10-year mayoral career. In 2018, Stephens is set to make more than $260,000.
- Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli received a $49,699 bump as his salary jumped from $173,907 (2016) to $223,606 (2017). We reached out to Zuccarelli twice for comment, but he did not respond.
- Michael Cassady, Village Manager of Mt. Prospect, received a $37,301 raise. Cassady made $248,282 (2017) compared to $210,9981 (2016).
- When Dane Bragg signed a contract extension as village manager in Buffalo Grove, he set himself up for another four years of steady pay raises. In 2017, Bragg’s salary rose by $26,862. By 2019, Bragg can expect to make $267,000.
At the local level, it’s not just the municipal managers getting in on the action. Park District bosses are raking in huge salaries: James Pilmer ($239,396) – Fox Valley Park District; Dean Bostrom ($217,446) – Hoffman Estates Park District; Liza McElroy ($217,075) – Park District of Highland Park.
Water, airport, mass transit, and forest preserve district bosses are also bringing home big bucks. Here are a few: Brian Dorn ($238,610) – North Shore Water Reclamation; Jeffrey Nelson ($220,855) – Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District; Alex Kovach ($215,429) – Lake County Forest Preserve.
2. Legal corruption – Illinois top "municipal salaried" employees don’t even work for government
Even private employees schemed for public dollars. Here’s how it happens.
Politically-connected private nonprofits are clouted into the public retirement system with taxpayer-backed pensions. Taxpayers have no control over the amount of annual salary awarded to these private organizations, but the salaries drive the massive lifetime retirement payouts.
In 2017, two of the top rank-and-file ‘municipal’ salaries went to Peter Murphy ($325,313) – Illinois Association of Park Districts and Brett Davis ($320,684) – Park District Risk Management Agency. Murphy has earned approximately $3.36 million since 2005. Davis received "only" $155,324 in 2005, and since then, he has more than doubled his salary.
In 2015, former Executive Director of the Illinois Municipal League (IML) Larry Frang retired on a $169,900 annual pension. In Frang’s final ten years of employment, his wage tripled from $130,812 to $392,423. His successor, Brad Cole, brought home $244,675 in 2017 after just two years on the job. IML is so unaccountable that they haven’t filed
an IRS income tax return since 1979.
3. Nerds that glitter – school district treasurers
There are 11 township school treasurer employees in Cook County tallying up six-figure salaries. Bloom Township’s Robert Grossi pulled down $287,593 last year, the largest of these pricey treasurer paychecks. Bremen Township Treasurer Joseph McDonnell made $218,189.
We found two top-paid township school treasurers dabbling in private sector endeavors. Eugene Varnado made $249,760 as Thorton Township’s treasurer while also running his own certified public accounting firm, Eugene Varnado, LLC.
Scott Wheaton made $121,376 as the treasurer of township No. 36 on top of his private law firm, Scott R. Wheaton & Associates
. We reached out to Wheaton twice for comment, but he did not respond.
There are high-ranking administrators foregoing the Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS) – a system with a $100 billion unfunded liability – for the more fully-funded Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF). At Waukegan Community SD 60, General Counsel Thomas Morris made $256,292 while Bloomington SD 87 paid its Chief Financial and Legal Officer $230,445. Tony Sanders, the "CEO" of Elgin Area School District U-46, made $230,445.
Two cable TV producers
employed at Niles School District 219 are making six-figures to run the district’s cable TV channel. Michael Hoffman, made $102,432, while his coworker Robert Henderson’s salary spiked from $102,766 in 2016 to $220,542 in 2017. We contacted the superintendent of Niles School District 219 twice for comment, but he did not respond.
4. Rank-and-file county employees raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars
DuPage County employees have a history of living large on the taxpayer dime. In 2002, county administrator Donald Zeilenga pulled in $383,156. In 2009, the chief of the state’s attorney’s criminal bureau Michael Wolfe hauled in $240,630. In 2011, county engineer Charles Tokarski made $340,147. This year, DuPage County "Chief of Staff" Tom Cuculich pulled down $209,526, up from $98,350 in 2003.
Retirement in DuPage County is a sweet deal. In his final year as chief deputy, Dewey Hartman, received $324,431 – a $159,574 bump on his way out the door. Chief Sheriff Steven Flanagan’s salary skyrocketed by nearly $100,000 in his final year. In 2017, Flanagan retired with a $258,774 pensionable salary, up from $159,506 the year before.
It isn’t just DuPage. We found other county administrators bringing home huge paychecks. In Lake County, Administrator Barry Burton pulled in $245,005; Deputy Administrator Amy McEwan made $175,265; and Sheriff Deputy John Forlenza received $176,658.
In Will County, Administrator Richard Ackerson made $193,544; Sheriff Deputy Juliann Budde made $163,578; and Undersheriff Robert Contro brought in $159,595.
5. The managers of Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) are racking up terrific pay hikes
The very people managing and investing municipal public servant retirement money are racking up huge gains of their own. We call it salary spiking: when salaries are jacked up for a short period to increase pensions and milk the system.
Over the last four years, IMRF Chief Investment Officer Shah Dhvani’s pensionable salary increased from $208,003 to $391,442. Executive Director Louis Kosiba’s salary increased from $126,703 in 2001 to $270,563 in 2017. That’s a $143,860 pay hike for the same job and title. These salaries are literally funded with employee retirement dollars.
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Public service is literally defined as "serving the people." Today, however, our public servants have figured out how to serve themselves, gaming the system to line their pockets. Until taxpayers demand change, the gravy train will continue to roll.