CHICAGO — Patronage workers with the Cook County Forest Preserve District are seeing more green these days — in their paychecks.

With people everywhere facing tough financial times, the 28 forest preserve patronage workers who’ve been on the payroll since 2006 all got hefty raises in the following two years, an analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association has found. They’re among 38 forest preserve workers who are exempt from the Shakman court order that bans political hiring in city and county government.

On average, the exempt employees were paid $98,071 last year. Nine of them saw their salaries increase 19 percent or more between 2006 and 2008.

Most of the Shakman-exempt employees — 24 in all — have contributed to the campaign funds of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger; his late father, former board President John Stroger; or the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization that John Stroger controlled.

The Strogers and the party organization have gotten a total of $49,870 in campaign contributions from the exempt employees since the mid-1990s. The biggest contributor: Deputy Comptroller Alvin Lee ($12,100), followed by district police chief Richard Waszak ($8,050).

That’s their right, says district spokesman Steve Mayberry, who says Todd Stroger never has solicited forest preserve employees for campaign cash.

“It is the First Amendment right of all private citizens … to make political contributions to whomever they please,” says Mayberry, himself a Shakman-exempt employee who has given $3,905 to Stroger organizations.

The number of exempt employees amounts to less than 7 percent of the district’s 564-person work force.

“The current Shakman-exempt list is a result of long and careful debate,” Mayberry says. “It is intended to recognize the need for the president of Cook County and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to have some confidential employees in leadership positions.”

The Forest Preserve District is separate from county government — even though it’s overseen by the same president and commissioners. A judge has assigned the district its own Shakman compliance administrator, Jan Carlson, who says district officials have asked to add “four or five new” exempt positions. Carlson is reviewing those requests.

Many of those with Shakman-exempt jobs with the district have an 8th Ward pedigree, but not all. Among those:

•   •   The district’s top executive, Steve Bylina, has worked in Ald. Edward M. Burke’s 14th Ward organization. A forestry expert, his annual pay is $168,511.

•   •   Former county commissioner and 37th Ward Ald. Frank Damato is the district’s “coordinator of community intergovernmental relations.” He makes $100,657.

•   •   Frank Mole, who has ties to the 36th Ward Regular Democratic organization, holds the title “assistant maintenance superintendent III.” His salary went from $82,844 in 2006 to $99,686 in 2008 — a 20 percent hike.

•   •   Vito Benigno, who was active in former 42nd Ward Ald. Burton Natarus’ Democratic organization, is a “recreation superintendent III.” His pay rose 22 percent from 2006 to 2008, to $105,851.

In all, 28 of the Shakman-exempt forest preserve workers saw their pay rise 13 percent or more during the three-year period. The only Shakman-exempt staffers who got pay hikes of less than 13 percent were the 10 who had been in their jobs for two years or less.

Mayberry says the raises resulted, in part, from the district’s approving a new contract for unionized employees in December 2007 that “included wage increases that were, at that time, primarily retroactive.

“As is accepted and common practice among local and state governments, these increases were extended to all district employees” except forest preserve police officers, who were covered by a different contract, Mayberry says. The County Board approved similar wage hikes for county workers. (Go to news/watchdogs for details.)

In addition, Stroger “may” grant additional raises for nonunion employees without having them undergo evaluations, “though that’s a very rare occurrence,” Mayberry says. The forest preserves, he adds, are “developing a comprehensive and fair performance evaluation system, which should be rolled out to all employees” by November.

>> Read the partner story in the Chicago Sun-Times.