September 17, 2011
Follow the money. That was the battle cry of investigative reporters trying to unravel that Watergate scandal that exploded on the political scene in 1972 and ended two years later with President Nixon’s resignation.
Forty years after, it’s the credo driving retired businessman Adam Andrzejewski (pronounced Angie-F-Ski) to try to clean up Illinois government and restore financial credibility and openness to its operations at the state, county and local levels.
That’s why Andrzejewski and his organization “For the Good of Illinois,” this past week unveiled a most interesting website, one that will get the blood boiling of taxpayers who take a look. The site (www.OpentheBooks.com) lists the pay, salary history and pension details of virtually all retired and active public employees at the state, county and local levels in Illinois.
With the stroke of a few computer keys, citizens can call up the payrolls of their local government offices, a reality that Andrzejewski contends is the first step to restoring financial stability to government.
“The purpose of the site is to wake people up and get a quick answer to the question, ‘How much does my government cost?’” he said. “Now (with the information out), the two-way conversation between citizens and units of government can proceed. I’m confident that the two-way conversation will start to rein in the excesses.”
Many people already know that former Parkland College President Zelema Harris collects one of the largest public pensions in Illinois, more that $17,000 per month. But did readers know that state records show total contributions to Harris’ state pension account during her tenure at Parkland were $410,511?
That means that Harris, who retired in 2006, got every dime she contributed back in two years and that it’s pure profit the rest of the way.
The website offers an inexhaustible supply of juicy financial morsels for web surfers to consume. Andrzejewski conceded people have a natural curiosity about what others earn, but he said there’s much more to the issue.
He said that the people need to know how much government costs, why it costs so much and understand why the state’s public pension systems are creaking under the weight of promised future benefits.
Further, he said that the pension systems’ growing problems have been exacerbated by the practice of salary spiking (giving big late career pay raises to increase pension benefits) and double-dipping (public employees collecting multiple pensions).
Here are a couple of statistics that Andrzejewski said do not bode well for the future.
Illinois has a population of 13 million, but its citizens support roughly 970,000 current or former government employees at all levels (710,000 active and 260,000 retirees).
In 2010, there were 4,789 educators who retired. During their careers, these retirees paid $439 million into their state’s retirement system. But they received $222 million in pension payments the first year of retirement, meaning that the time it will take to return the invested basis of their pension is less that two years.
Effingham municipal official Rick Goeckner received a decent salary during his years working for the public. In 2000, his salary was $58,000. By 2009, it was $91,371. But in 2010, Goeckner received a $48,000 raise that increased his salary to $139,000 a year. In 2011, he retired and is now collecting a pension that pays him $4,570 a month, far more that he would have received if not for the salary spike.
Gathering all the information that went into OpentheBooks website was a massive project that begun innocently enough.
There was a controversy involving the salary and incredible fringe benefits paid to the city administrator in Palatine. Andrzejewski’s group sought to delve into the grimy details, but the city resisted complying with the Freedom of Information requests seeking salary and benefit information.
“It took us eight months to get our hands around the total compensation for the village manager,” he said. “We were so disgusted, we decided to pursue the same kind of information for the whole state.”
It required well over $100,000 and a small army of information technology workers to create the website. But before that work could be done, Andrzejewski’s organization was required to file FOI requests with each unit of government in the state.
Some were happy to cooperate. Others complied with the requests grudgingly, threatening to sue if it was made public.
A handful of governmental units have simply ignored FOI requests, and they remain on the organization’s radar screen.
This past week, Andrzejewski, joined by a number of prominent members of the Illinois General Assembly, held a news conference in Chicago to publicize the new website. They’re hoping to build public awareness of the site, but Andrzejewski expressed disappointment that both Chicago newspapers ignored the story.
Nonetheless, he said the website has been busy, receiving 100,000 views and generating an intense reaction.
“The most frequent response I hear is, ‘Adam, I’m in the wrong business,’” he said.
Many people know that William Volk, the executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, earned a $216,000 salary 2010. But did you know that MTD trustees increased his salary between 2002 and 2005 from $107,813 to $184,665?
Although the spelling and pronunciation of his last name confuses many, Andrzejewski has something of a public profile. After making a fortune in private business, Andrzejewski ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, winning nearly 15 percent of the vote in a seven-way primary.
He calls himself a Republican reformer, emphasizing the reformer label far more than Republican label.
Married, living in Hinsdale and the father of three young girls, the 40ish Andrzejewski devoted his campaign to the concept of opening up government to the public, mostly through the Internet. After the 2010 election, Andrzejewski formed For the Good of Illinois to continue to pursue that policy goal.
He noted that the government units could have posted the financial information that his organization posted. But he said the eight months of time and effort were worth the costs of letting citizens know what their government costs.
“The political patronage establishment doesn’t like the light because it brings the heat,” Andrzejewski said.
Jim Dey, a member of the News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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