In 1999, the funding level for the North Riverside Firefighters Pension Fund was 105 percent. In other words, the fund was running a surplus, well above levels recommended by the Illinois Department of Insurance and other reputable pension fund analysts.
Today, the funding level for the fund is 30 percent, more than two-thirds less than it was 18 years ago and critically below any reputable pension fund recommendation.
This is no accounting sleight-of-hand. The politicians who control North Riverside’s municipal budget process are guilty of financial malfeasance to a degree that borders on criminal negligence.
Basic arithmetic provides the answer if we simply examine the decade from 2003 through 2012.
During that 10-year period the village of North Riverside failed to authorize over $4.7 million as required by law. They simply allocated that money elsewhere and ignored state statute.
Worse, while the village’s pension contributions fell far short of its legal responsibilities in five of the 10 fiscal years, in the remaining five years the politicians did not contribute a single penny of funding to the firefighter retirement plan.
Since then, Village President Hubert Hermanek Jr. and his political allies have ignored orders by the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI) and the Illinois Labor Relations Board (ILRB) to comply with Illinois law. Each time Mayor Hermanek and his allies have been rejected in their claims that the village can’t keep up with pension costs.
Why? Because their objections are baseless.
Indeed, the board’s last excuse, filed before the Illinois First Appellate Court in December, contended that the village couldn’t afford pension contributions as a result of the world financial meltdown of 2008. The court virtually laughed Hermanek and his cohorts out of the chambers by pointing out that in 2005 and 2006 — well before the Great Recession — the village board failed to contribute even a dime to the firefighter pension fund.
This village board’s blatant disregard for the law should infuriate every citizen taxpayer of North Riverside. In his attempt to run out the clock on Illinois pension law and the very provisions of the Illinois Constitution that safeguard public safety officer pensions, Mayor Hermanek and his political allies are spinning the meter on residents of their village.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hermanek has decided to fill a long-vacant fire department administrative position with a retired firefighter from Broadview. Thomas Gaertner, who retired in 2015 with an $84,700 annual pension after serving 29 years with the Broadview Fire Department, has been hired as North Riverside’s deputy fire chief.
Gaertner’s annual salary, in a job that went unfilled for six years, is reported to be $84,000.
Priorities, anyone? A village that claims poverty when it comes to fulfilling its legal pension funding obligations for public safety officers is moved to hire a shiny new bureaucrat to direct the same firefighters whose retirement plans have been funded with pennies on the dollar — if at all.
Lastly, it is important to know Mayor Hermanek and his political cohorts have treated each other’s public pensions with much more generosity. While they thumbed their noses at the law that requires them to fund public safety officer pensions, they chose to dutifully fund their own benefits to the maximum levels allowed by law.
During the 17 years North Riverside has caused its firefighter pension fund to plummet from 105 percent to 30 percent of full funding, its politicians fully funded the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund for its other employees.
We don’t question the village’s commitment to its hard-working people who serve in public works and office roles. But we would like to know why Mayor Hermanek and his political allies would willfully and unlawfully work to destroy the retirement security of their police and firefighters.
Pat Devaney is president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois.