CHICAGO — In an era of layoffs, unpaid furloughs and reduced benefits at most levels of government, workers for the little-known, taxpayer-financed agency that deals with Cook County’s waste and storm water are a throwback to far better times: They continue to enjoy high salaries, big overtime checks and annual cash payouts for unused sick-leave days.

The paychecks of many agency employees have grown by more than 30 percent in the past five years, far outstripping the pace in other local government agencies and the rate of inflation.

With a $1.7 billion annual budget, the district is responsible for managing storm water and for treating sewage before pouring it into the county’s waterways. Its most famous endeavors included reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan in 1900 and the “Deep Tunnel” storm-water management project, which is designed to reduce flooding and to avoid flushing raw sewage into the lake during heavy storms.

An investigation by the Chicago News Cooperative and the Better Government Association found that the number of employees with six-figure salaries has more than doubled since 2005 at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. The ranks of district officials with salaries exceeding $200,000 a year more than tripled — to 16 from 5 — during the same period, payroll records show.

For Cook County taxpayers, the cost of financing the district has also risen. The owner of a home worth $200,000 pays about $135 a year toward the district’s budget, an increase of almost 30 percent in the last decade.

Sixteen district employees will be paid more than Mayor Richard M. Daley this year, and some top executives for the agency receive tens of thousands of dollars a year more than their counterparts at City Hall or in other units of local government.

The $229,316 annual salary of the district’s top lawyer, Frederick M. Feldman, is 32 percent higher than the head of the Daley administration’s law department, Corporation Counsel Mara Georges. That gap does not even include 24 unpaid days off that Ms. Georges and most other city workers are required to take this year. One district board commissioner’s aide, whose salary rose almost 40 percent in the past five years, was Dominic Longo, a veteran Chicago Democratic political operative who was convicted of vote fraud in 1984.

Terrence J. O’Brien, the longtime district board president, defended the high wages as necessary to retain hard-working, skilled employees. Mr. O’Brien said the district would not grant cost-of-living pay increases this year, after recently raising its tax levy to help plug a $24 million budget shortfall. Besides cost-of-living increases, the district gives merit pay increases based on evaluations from supervisors.

Mr. O’Brien said the district had avoided layoffs and mandatory furloughs because it did not face budget deficits as large as those of other government units.

He also noted that the vast majority of the district’s 2,100 employees must pass exams to be hired. The tests were mandated when the Illinois attorney general sued the district in 1985 after news media reports and a Better Government Association investigation alleged patronage hiring.
“Our people are not here because of who they know but by what they know, and that is different from other agencies,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Quality, professional, well-educated people do more than people who are watching the clock.”

Critics question whether the big pay increases are justified in the midst of cutbacks elsewhere. “Do you really have to pay them that much to keep them from leaving or are you paying them so much because you can?” said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Just because a taxing body is recession-proof doesn’t mean you have to lavish those raises on employees.”

The agency is run by a nine-member board whose elections are far down the ballot from the higher-profile political posts. Despite operating in relative obscurity, the district’s commissioners have not avoided charges of political favoritism in hiring.

In 2008, Fox News Chicago reported that the sons and daughters of district employees and politically connected applicants were hired as summer interns. At the time, Mr. O’Brien responded, “There are a lot of fathers and mothers out in the community; if they can’t help their children when they’re in need of some experience in the workplace, you know, shame on me.”

The district’s full-time employees tend to enjoy long careers with the agency.

Mr. Feldman, the top lawyer for the district, has worked there since 1969. In addition to his salary, he has received annual cash payments of more than $4,000 for unused sick leave in recent years, according to district records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr. Feldman is one of eight lawyers for the district who have salaries higher than Ms. Georges, the top lawyer for the City of Chicago.

Some of the biggest salary increases came in the district treasurer’s office. Despite having the same title she had five years ago, Mary A. Boyle, the assistant treasurer, saw her pay rise 44 percent, to about $139,000 a year.

For unionized district workers, overtime costs have shot up more than 20 percent in recent years. In addition to contractually mandated wage increases, 22 workers have earned more than $100,000 each in overtime payments since 2005. Most of the biggest recipients of overtime pay are district police officers who patrol the agency’s facilities, like the sewage treatment plant in south suburban Stickney.

“It’s just how we’ve treated our employees because of what they have to go through to get hired,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Who, when they get out of college, wants to take an exam?”

Salaries for the district’s part-time board of commissioners, have also increased in recent years, with the approval of the state legislature. Mr. O’Brien, who ran for county board president in the Democratic primary in February, is paid almost $80,000 a year, up 33 percent since 2005. Kathleen Therese Meany, the board vice president, and Gloria Alitto Majewski, the finance committee chairman, are the next highest-paid commissioners, at $75,000 a year.

“I am here probably, sometimes five days a week,” Ms. Majewski said. “I’m usually here until 6 or 7 o’clock at night. Other commissioners, I can’t comment on. The district is very technical. I spend a lot of my time reading through the documents.”

Besides supervisors, the only district employees who can be hired and fired at the whim of their bosses are the 26 aides to the commissioners. Some have seen their salaries rise substantially in the last five years.

The biggest percentage increase went to Eleanor Kane, an aidessistant to Commissioner Debra Shore, whose salary jumped 44 percent, to $76,000 a year. Ms. Shore said Ms. Kane the aide hads a master’s degree in environmental engineering and deserved the raise after an initial probationary period at lower pay. “I’m not an engineer, and she’s been great,” said Ms. Shore, who worked for the Better Government Association in the 1980s.

One of the highest-paid aides is Donna McGowan-Watson, the daughter of Commissioner Barbara J. McGowan. Both Ms. McGowan-Watson and another aide to her mother, Lemuettia Hicks, a daughter of Alderman Carrie M. Austin (34th Ward), are paid almost $88,000 a year.

“Sometimes they work on the weekends,” Ms. McGowan said. “None of our jobs are eight hours a day, five days a week.”

Commissioner Frank Avila also employs his daughter, Audrey, as well as Mr. Longo, who in the last five years has seen his salary climb to almost $84,000 from less than $60,000. Mr. Avila noted that Mr. Longo’s vote fraud conviction was more than 25 years ago.

“I don’t know too much about that,” Mr. Avila said. “He must have been very young. He does an excellent job.”

Asked about the high salaries for top executives, Mr. Avila said the demands of keeping the environment clean required employees with higher technical expertise than many other local government employees had.

He added, “Very few people leave the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter for the Chicago News Cooperative.
Patrick Rehkamp is chief investigator for the Better Government Association.
Joel Ebert, an associate investigator for the association, contributed reporting.

>> Read the partner story in the Chicago News Coop.