DuPage County Board members recently had a rare opportunity to help eliminate a controversial perk for themselves: pensions.

Instead, they quietly opted to keep the publicly funded retirement benefit, possibly saddling taxpayers with the burden of paying for a portion of those plans for many years to come, the Better Government Association and Daily Herald have learned.

“In the end, a majority of the board decided it was appropriate to keep the benefit,” says the county board’s vice chairman, John Curran, a Woodridge Republican who supports ending the practice of offering pensions to board members.

Aside from making $50,000 a year, the part-time board members qualify for health insurance and have the option to enroll in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF), the state’s second-largest pension fund with $25 billion in assets.

To qualify for the retirement benefit, the elected officials are expected to perform at least 1,000 hours of county-related work annually for eight years. But unlike other county employees, they don’t have to prove they meet the requirement – their word is good enough. Neither the IMRF nor the county requires that they document their time.

A recent BGA investigation raised questions as to how some members fulfill that annual requirement, equivalent to roughly 20 hours a week. The investigation found that some board members missed about a third of county board and committee meetings in the first nine months of the year.

Board members aren’t required to enroll in IMRF, but once they do, they can’t withdraw unless they leave office, says John Krupa, an IMRF spokesman. Yet, there is a way for the entire board to, in effect, kill the benefit.

DuPage County was audited by the IMRF, beginning in June 2010. As part of that ongoing process, IMRF distributed what’s known as a “6.93-form,” asking the county’s board members to confirm that their office-related duties take at least 1,000 hours a year to fulfill.

The audit was described as fairly routine, but there was a lot more at stake.

In an email to the BGA, Krupa explains: “If the majority of elected officials from a governing body decline to submit form 6.93, IMRF would begin the process of removing any members of that governing body who are currently participating in IMRF.”

In other words, if at least 10 DuPage County Board members didn’t sign and submit the document, it would have paved the way for the current slate of participating board members to lose their pension eligibility.

The DuPage County Board also would have had to pass a resolution indicating their positions no longer met the 1,000-hour requirement. Once that happened, the position would be “ineligible for IMRF participation going forward,” Krupa writes.

But it never came to that.

Instead, 12 DuPage County Board members rejected the chance to give up their pensions, submitting signed forms to IMRF in October 2011, confirms Krupa.

IMRF identified the signees as Grant Eckhoff (R-Wheaton); Paul Fichtner (R-Elmhurst); Rita Gonzalez (D-Addison); James Healy (R-Naperville); Brian Krajewski (R-Downers Grove); Michael McMahon (R-Hinsdale); Debra Olson (R-Wheaton); Patrick O’Shea (R-Lombard); Donald Puchalski (R-Addison); Brien Sheahan (R-Elmhurst); James Zay (R-Carol Stream); and John Zediker (R-Naperville).

Besides Curran, J.R. McBride (R-Glen Ellyn) and Jeff Redick (R-Elmhurst) didn’t sign the form, even though all three participate in IMRF, according to Krupa.

Also not signing the forms were three board members who previously decided not to participate in the pension program: Dirk Enger (D-Winfield), Robert Larsen (R-Warrenville) and Anthony Michelassi (D-Aurora).

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin participates in IMRF. He didn’t sign the form, his spokeswoman confirms, but IMRF doesn’t consider him part of the 18-member board, therefore his action had no affect on the outcome.

IMRF covers about 3,000 governmental agencies, and doesn’t audit the same one every year, so the county board will have to wait an undetermined period to revisit the issue. That’s fine with some officials who say they put in more than 1,000 hours annually and are entitled to a pension.

“You give up all those hours, you give up opportunities for income,” Healy says. “All I’m looking for is something to level the playing field.”

But that leveling comes at a price. Participating board members contribute 7.5 percent of their annual salary, or roughly $3,750 a year. But DuPage County taxpayers shoulder a significant load – in fiscal year 2011 the county paid IMRF $352,997 to cover board member-related pension obligations, according to a DuPage County Board spokeswoman.

How much a board member might receive in a pension depends on different variables. But, if somebody served on the county board for 20 years and was paid $50,000 a year during that entire period, he or she would collect an annual pension starting at $40,000.

Curran, meanwhile, already stands to draw a public-sector pension from the Cook County Pension Fund because he works as a full-time employee of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Although he’s participating in IMRF, Curran lobbied DuPage colleagues behind the scenes to do away with their perk.

Zediker says he understands why some people don’t believe the part-time position warrants a pension.

“But this is a larger issue than us,” he says. “If our intention is to say we don’t deserve pensions, let’s go about it differently.”

This story was written and reported by BGA Investigator Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.