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Managing sewage and flood control might not seem like the most glamorous job in Illinois, but the financial rewards can be substantial, a Better Government Association analysis finds.

At nearly $100,000 a year, the average salary for employees of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District ranks near the top of public agencies in the state, higher than Cook County, Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Housing Authority.

MWRD salaries compared to other Illinois agencies

Other indicators, though, demonstrate a reduced burden on taxpayers despite rising salaries. The district in 2016 is charging property taxpayers in Cook County less to run day-to-day operations than it did seven years ago.

>> Read this story in the Daily Herald

In 2009, the gross property tax levy for the district was $242 million. In 2016, it had declined to $227 million.   

This tax savings moves in the opposite direction of a 2010 report by the BGA, which saw taxes rise 30 percent between 2001 and 2010.

The average employee at MWRD makes almost $98,000 a year, according to data compiled by the BGA. The payroll figures are current as of March 2016 and compared with a year earlier.

There were 658 employees earning $100,000 base salaries or greater as of March 2016, which is 35 percent of the workforce at MWRD. That is an 85 percent increase from 2012, payroll data show.

Employees earning greater than $200,000 rose from 14 to 26.

Twenty-two MWRD employees will earn a higher base salary in 2016 than Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ($216,210), and 58 will earn more than Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ($170,000).

Annual pay will climb even higher this year when overtime is taken into account. As of August, overtime payments were made to 240 employees with six-figure base salaries, according to district figures. An additional 126 employees will earn more than $100,000 in 2016 with overtime payments included.

Through August 21, MWRD paid employees a total of almost $2.9 million in overtime, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

David St. Pierre
 David St. Pierre

Executive Director David St. Pierre said a reduction in the size of the workforce, which was around 2,100 in 2011, contributed to the increase in overtime. By this year, the headcount had been reduced to under 1,900, records show.

“It’s less expensive to pay overtime than to hire new full-time personnel,” St. Pierre said in an interview. That was a similar rationale used by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in recent years to address police staffing needs with overtime rather than new hires.

Even as the number of employees decreased, overall payroll costs continued to climb. St. Pierre explained that high salaries were a consequence of work at the district that demands a high level of skills and advanced degrees, and stated that increased efficiencies offset the higher cost.

On the payroll, there are 285 employees who work in engineering, and the majority of those positions require a four-year degree, he said. Another 130 employees work have environmental science expertise, and half of those positions require a graduate degree.

Contracts covering 775 union employees represented by 16 different unions at the district also contribute to higher pay, he added.

 This year, St. Pierre will earn $288,169. He is the highest paid employee at MWRD.

Over the decades, the district developed a reputation for being a patronage haven staffed by the politically connected. In the early 1960s, the BGA exposed massive corruption at the agency then known as the Metropolitan Sanitary District.

St. Pierre denies that MWRD is still a patronage dumping ground.

“The district is not one of those organizations,” St. Pierre said.

However, there are still family connections at MWRD. Donna McGowan-Watson, daughter of board vice president Barbara McGowan, and Audrey Avila, daughter of chairman of finance Frank Avila, are both expected to receive $99,293 salaries from MWRD in 2016. Both were identified in a 2010 BGA report.

Jared Rutecki was an investigative reporter and data coordinator at the Illinois Answers Project (previously known as the Better Government Association) from 2016 to 2023.