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Per diem reform proving a 'taboo subject' : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Per diem reform proving a 'taboo subject'
Concensus on changes proving elusive for county board panel

by Matt Schury


For at least two years the way Kendall County Board members are compensated will remain status quo if they fail to act within the next six weeks.

Board Chairman John Shaw said during last week's committee of the whole meeting that Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis recently sent the board members an email reminding them of the consequences of letting the June 1 deadline lapse.

Discussion on how to alter compensation packages for the five board member's whose seats are up for election in November is now in its fourth month of debate since the Per Diem Ad Hoc Committee was formed.

Those board members up for reelection and sitting on the board's Per Diem Adhoc Committee include Scott Gryder, Amy Cesich, Matthew Prochaska, Judy Gilmour and Lynn Cullick. The committee is scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 22 at the Kendall County office building in Yorkville.

Board members are still struggling to come to consensus on the way per diem payments, salaries, mileage and health insurance are paid.

In late February the committee voted to seek reimbursement from the 11 past and current board members who took $85 per diems incorrectly according to an investigation and audit. Those board members include current members Shaw, John Purcell, Dan Koukol, Jeff Wehrli and Elizabeth Flowers. Former board members in the audit included Anne Vickery, Jessie Hafenrichter, Bob Davidson, Pam Parr, Nancy Martin and Suzanne Petrella.

Weis has said the board members could collectively owe the county almost $50,000 in per diem payments. In March the committee began discussing ways to change the per diem system so that the mistakes don't occur again.

Last week was the latest debate about how to make changes and whether to do away with the per diem system and switch to compensating board members with only a salary.

Deadline looms for change

Shaw said that Weis recently sent an email to board members explaining what would happen if they failed to act before June 1.

Weis wasn't at the April 10 meeting but Leslie Johnson, assistant state's attorney, went over the letter.

Under state law, every time the county is reapportioned, the board sets a compensation schedule for a 10-year period. If the board takes no action in a decade that schedule, which was most recently set in 2012, will remain in place, Johnson explained.

"If there is no change made, it remains status quo," Johnsons said.

However, there is a statutory provision, she added, that allows the board to change the compensation schedule that was set in 2012. But any change has to be made no less than 180 days before the new board members take office on Dec. 1, 2014. The change they make at that time can only apply to the five board members taking their oath of office on that day. The change would not apply to the remaining five board members who are halfway through their terms, according to Johnson.

Any changes for those five board members would have to be set no less than 180 days before the new term begins for those five on Dec. 1, 2016. In that case, the deadline would be June 1, 2016 for them.

"You cannot bind future boards pursuant to case law," Johnson said. "You cannot set the compensation schedule for the new board taking their office Dec. 1, 2016. You can only bind the board taking their oaths of office Dec. 1, 2014, at this time."

She added that if they want to change the compensation schedule for those board seats up for election in 2016 they have to wait until 2016.

Most of the board members have said that something has to change with the way per diems are turned in and collected with more oversight in place. The board has discussed using new forms to keep track of which meetings they have attended as well as which meetings for which they intent to be compensated.

Some of the board members, including Cesich, who chairs the county's per diem ad hoc committee, have been pushing to do away with the $85 per diem payments board members get for attending meetings and instead switching to a "straight salary."

The committee has presented different options toward getting rid of the other benefits and going to just a salary and mileage reimbursement for out-of-county travel. The salary options presented were in the $8,000 to $18,000 range, much higher than the current $2,400 salary board members receive.

Cesich expressed her frustration with trying to come up with a salary with which the entire board could be comfortable. She said that in talking with each of the board members personally about what they would like the salary to be set at she was reminded of a childhood memory she had.

"I remember asking my grandfather when I was a little girl how much money he made and he sent me to my room," she said. "It feels very much like that taboo subject to talk about."

Cesich added that if the board were to just go to salaries she would be comfortable with setting a $12,000 a year salary for board members.

Purcell has said that he would like to see the salary set around $17,500 annually if the rest of the compensation is taken away.

Purcell and Wehrli have also said going to two different payment systems wouldn't be fair since the committee assignments are not evenly distributed and some board members are required to attend more meetings than others. They have claimed that the per diem system, while it needs to be fixed, allows for a more equitable way of compensation.

Purcell has also spoken out against what he has termed a "bifurcated system" that would be created if board members change compensation now for only half the board.

Board member Elizabeth Flowers agreed last week that this might not be fair.

"Some people are attending a lot more meetings than other people and that, to me, would not be fair for somebody who is not attending as many meetings as other people to get the same salary as everyone else on the board," Flowers said.

Board member Jeff Wehrli also said that the board should not be on two separate compensation schedules.

"I'm leaning towards keeping the per diems rather than a straight salary."

Wehrli continued that he hasn't made his mind up yet but if the committee recommends board members pay for most of the cost of their health insurance then the board should then vote to "bump the salaries."

He added that he does take the county employee health insurance. Information provided to the per diem ad hoc committee indicated that Wehrli is on the family plan, which is around 67 percent subsidized by tax dollars. The four board members who are on the single member health insurance plan include Flowers, Prochaska and Koukol. That plan is taxpayer-subsidized around 90 percent of the cost for the insurance.

"We have all been in the situation where we need health insurance and each one of us is going to be tasked to be able to find it if we don't get it here," Wehrli said.

Prochaska has indicated that he is in favor of changing the health insurance plan so that board members are paying more for it. He also said he is leaning towards moving to just a salary.

Gryder has also been a proponent of moving the board to a straight salary, which he said is the cleanest way to change how the board is paid.

"If we don't fix it now, if we don't do a split, it sounds like we have to wait until 2020 to do it again and that's not fixing the problem that we were charged with fixing," Gryder said. "The fairness question that I keep hearing is really secondary to what the issue is and that's making sure that we don't have the state's attorney having to sort this out again for us."

He added that moving to a straight salary means that there are only five people who the treasurer and clerk need to keep an eye on who are receiving per diems.

Included in the board's packet last week were a series of samples of the new forms that Treasurer Jill Ferko and County Clerk Debbie Gillette have made to keep track of per diem payments and attendance. A voucher form would ask members to check off a box next to the meeting they wish to be compensated for. Ferko has said this is supposed to eliminate the problem of deciphering the handwriting of some board members when they turn in vouchers with their meetings written on them. The form also includes a line where the board member can add what he or she is claiming that month in per diems and a space for them to sign.

The attendance form would ask the meeting chair to keep track of who went to the committee, board meeting or special appointment as well as date and time. The form is supposed to be signed by each board member in attendance as well as the chairman of the meeting who is expected to send it to the treasurer's office. There is also a place on the form to keep track of special appointments made. The liaison the County Board sends to an outside organization or group is expected to list the appointment or special committee, the time and date of the meeting. They will also have to sign that they attended.

The packet also included a mileage log with date, reason for travel, place of departure and destination listed as well as total mileage traveled. Board members are expected to multiply the total mileage they traveled by the IRS mileage reimbursement of 56 cents and sign off at the bottom of the form. Most of the board members agreed the forms were needed and a good way to address concerns in the audit.

"The forms look good and I commend the per diem ad hoc committee," Koukol said.

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