Members of the Naperville City Council remain at odds over how much they should be given for the job they do, once they finish this round of doing it.
In yet another protracted discussion focused on tweaking the pay and benefits that come with the position for those who fill it in the future, the officials acknowledged that the issue of health insurance for the part-time job has not been scrutinized to a great degree before.
Tuesday evening’s conversation, which stretched over an hour and 20 minutes, again focused on whether it’s appropriate for council members to receive more than the $12,500 that now goes with the job. The option to sign up for city-subsidized health insurance, a perk that has come with the council position since 1986, is on track for discontinuation after the local elections in spring 2015 put all eight council positions and the mayor’s seat before the voters.
Councilman Steve Chirico continued his effort to create cross-council parity between those who now avail themselves of the health benefit and those who don’t. With the exception of Councilmen Bob Fieseler, Paul Hinterlong and Grant Wehrli, all of the group receives health insurance from the city, paying 20 percent of the premium, some covering multiple members of their households under the policy. Chirico has said the benefit, which represents $71,000 in the yearly city budget, creates an imbalance that places the value of his compensation at about $31,000, while those who do not opt for the coverage receive only about $12,000.
After last month proposing a $24,000 yearly pay rate and the elimination of all other compensation, Chirico this week revised his plan, saying inaccurate figures reporting the actual cost of the coverage triggered his change in direction. He now suggests setting the “all-in” salary at $20,000, which will go before the council for a vote on May 20.
Even with insurance coverage taken out of the equation, Chirico said he wants to find a “sweet spot” that draws the council’s backing and is generous enough to be worth the time commitment the office requires.
Citing one example, he surmised that a single mother who holds down two jobs to support her family might hesitate to run for election to a post that pays just $1,000 or so monthly. Finding middle ground, he said, would open the possibility to a wider range of prospective office holders.
“How much can that be, where it’s still reasonable and you’re making it available to more people, but it’s still fair to the taxpayers?” Chirico said Wednesday.
Although he isn’t certain his proposal will be supported by a majority of his council colleagues, Chirico insists his idea merits a good look.
“This is an old, antiquated benefits package,” he said. “It really just needs to be cleaned up.”
Not everyone thinks the current pay rate should be hiked. Some of those on the dais were in agreement with speakers from the audience who implored the council to update their compensation to be more commensurate with volunteer work — which is how several of them regard the council job.
“I understand that this job is not easy … but you also knew that when you chose to run for public office,” said Kristen Jungles, a former Naperville Park District board president who served for six years on that commission, acknowledging that elected officials essentially remain on call at all times. “If you don’t like what it is, don’t run next time.”
Longtime council member Doug Krause, on the other hand, repeated his view that the position is far from part-time and discouraged his colleagues from being hasty about their decision.
“When you’re talking about compensation, it gets very emotional, it gets involved with elections. Maybe we need a cooling-off time on this thing,” Krause said. “This is a job. It’s a 24-hour-a day job. I’ve gotten calls at 2 o’clock in the morning. It goes with the job. It’s not just sitting up here on the dais two meetings a month.”
Councilwoman Judy Brodhead acknowledged that there is a volunteerism element in public service. Her own local resume includes time spent on the Transportation Advisory Board, the Plan Commission, the Naperville Development Partnership, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the League of Women Voters, where she served a term as president.
“I’ve been doing this stuff for free since many people in this room were in high school,” Brodhead said.
However, she disagreed that providing health coverage to some officials and not others, at their discretion, necessarily translates to inequity.
“I’m disturbed by people sort of assuming that there’s a moral high ground here in making one choice over another,” said Brodhead, calling the matter a policy issue.
Councilman Paul Hinterlong said he has never been approached by as many constituents regarding a single issue as he has with the matter of council compensation.
“Wherever I see somebody on the road, they’re coming up to me and bringing it right out. It is a big deal,” said Hinterlong, who shared that many people were unaware that the benefit is provided to council members.
Second-term council member Bob Fieseler, who said he doesn’t plan to seek re-election next year, told his council peers he’s ready for the group’s time and energy to move on to more broadly pressing matters.
“We have been really focused inwardly, I think to the detriment of being focused more on things that would be of benefit to our community,” Fieseler said, naming the $15 million budget deficit in the city-run electric utility as an example. “I just want to preserve unity and working relationships here until we get to 2015.”