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Cal City is reeling, but officials get sweet perks

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Updated: December 24, 2012 6:47AM

In Calumet City, the unemployment rate tops 11 percent, well above the state average.

Nearly 20 percent of local families live below the poverty line.

And taxes are rising to meet soaring pension costs for municipal workers.

The picture is relatively bleak — unless you’re an elected leader in town.

An analysis by the Better Government Association found the full-time mayor and seven part-time aldermen in Calumet City are the beneficiaries of unusually generous compensation, courtesy of the south suburb’s struggling tax base.

Among the BGA’s findings:

† Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush’s pay and benefits top $180,000 annually, according to documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and interviews.

Last year, the mayor’s compensation included a salary of $74,194; a “longevity” bonus of nearly $20,000; a $500,000 life insurance policy with an annual premium of more than $20,000; an expense account of $19,500; about $16,660 in pension fund contributions; $11,000 for attending “special” meetings; a vehicle allowance of $7,740; $6,000 to handle liquor licenses, and at least $6,000 for health-care coverage.

Qualkinbush’s pay and perks are expected to stay roughly the same this year.

† Aldermanic pay and benefits last year topped $56,000, roughly double the median earnings for working residents in town, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Aldermanic compensation varies based on the length of time an alderman has been in office, among other factors, but in 2011 included an annual salary of nearly $16,000; up to $12,000 for “special meetings”; an $8,400 expense account; $6,000 to chair a committee; at least $6,000 for health-care coverage; pension fund contributions of about $5,000; up to $4,000 in longevity bonuses, and $3,000 to cover life insurance.

In addition, each alderman is allowed to hire a personal secretary of his or her choice — and it’s often a relative. Each secretary receives pay of $7,200 a year, but no benefits.

† Health-care coverage for elected leaders is generous by most standards in the private and public sectors, according to experts interviewed by the BGA.

The mayor and aldermen, and qualifying family members aren’t required to pay premiums for health or dental coverage, though they pay deductibles or co-pays for prescriptions.

Even after they leave office, the mayor and aldermen, if they served at least two terms, can receive health-care coverage with no premiums until they are eligible for Medicare. At that point, they and eligible family members can receive free “supplemental” insurance from the city.

Some of those benefiting from this largesse acknowledge it’s been over the top, and city officials are scaling back certain perks.

For instance, in September Calumet City leaders changed the rules, so city council members who take office after May 1, 2013, will no longer receive health insurance — but the current board won’t lose its coverage.

“It had to stop somewhere and it did,” Ald. Thaddeus Jones, also a state representative, says.

Meanwhile, the city council also eliminated Qualkinbush’s vehicle stipend and slashed her expense allowance by about half. But those changes also won’t go into effect until next May.

Spared the chopping block were payments that Qualkinbush and aldermen receive for special meetings, held in addition to the regular bi-monthly city council meetings. Officials are paid $660 a meeting for the first 12 special meetings they attend in a year, then $330 for each special meeting thereafter.

The mayor and aldermen were paid a total of $95,394 for special meetings last year, records show.

Qualkinbush, the mayor since 2003, declined interview requests. But in an email she defended her pay and perks, noting she also handles some purchasing and administrative tasks, thus eliminating the need for additional full-time employees.

“It is my understanding that south suburban municipalities with part-time mayors and full-time managers expend similar amounts of monies roughly equaling my compensation,” she wrote.

A survey of Calumet City’s municipal neighbors, including Homewood, Lansing and South Holland, reveals they’re far less generous to their leaders when it comes to salaries and benefits.

Aldermen in Calumet City, population 37,000, say they’re not overpaid. “It’s labeled a part-time job but it’s not a part-time job,” says Ald. Antoine Collins. “For the hours I put, [the compensation] is fair.”

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