To thank Bill Maio for his years of public service, his former colleagues on the DuPage County Board named a street after him.
County taxpayers are paying him back in far more lucrative ways.
Capping a career in which he often called for fiscal restraint, the retired Itasca politician now gets a $100,000-a-year pension. That's for 30 years of work — only five of which were full time, the rest as a part-time board member.
Maio is one of 34 formerly elected officials in the Chicago area who cashed in on a generous pension system so controversial that the rules were later tightened.
Several influential DuPage County officials — including Maio — helped bring about the system from which they benefited.
In all, about 750 people in 62 Illinois counties were able to join the most lucrative version of the pension plan for county elected officials. More than 500 have since retired — 17 getting an initial pension of more than $100,000. Five of them were from DuPage County.
Maio arguably got the best deal of them all.
The brash Republican — a onetime Harley-riding private investigator known for lining up votes — contributed just 11 percent of the total cost of his pension. That's the lowest contribution rate of any of the five and far lower than the typical government retiree.
Maio and his supporters say he deserved every dime and saved the county millions. Critics — including the union for some county workers — say it's a classic example of pension excess.
These cases "shed a negative light on public employee pensions, which for 98 percent of the workforce are fair, responsible and reasonable," said Hank Scheff of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Maio's path to his pension offers a window into how elected officials of both parties created a system that, despite reforms, continues to cost taxpayers.
Maio, 65, his wife and young child moved to DuPage County in 1972. He quickly joined charities and school boards, and eyed a life in local politics.
Within a decade, he became an Addison Township trustee in a place that was no political backwater.
The township was home to U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde and eventual state Senate President James "Pate" Philip.
Maio became his own brand of DuPage County Republican. He was a colorful, onetime Democrat from Chicago's Southeast Side. An Army veteran who preferred backroom arm-twisting to conducting news conferences. And, early in his career, he raised eyebrows by carrying a gun as a special deputy coroner for natural disasters.
He spent much of his public service jostling for votes on the County Board, to which he was elected in 1984.
The part-time office had its perks, including health insurance. That was good for Maio, who had his own insurance agency and, at times, was a private investigator and ran security at a teen juice bar.
But serving on the board wasn't financially lucrative. By the mid-1990s, it paid about $25,000 a year, with the pension formula of any county worker: Retire at age 60 with 20 years and get 35 percent of your pay. The percentage tops out at 75 percent after 40 years.
Some elected county leaders across the state wanted special treatment.
After all, the argument went, they faced the risk of voters firing them — making it a more perilous career. And state lawmakers and Cook County officials had beefed-up pensions.
In 1997, the DuPage Republican power structure was well-positioned to make it happen.
Philip pushed for a special commission to sort through all the pension sweeteners proposed during a strong economy. DuPage County Treasurer John Novak was appointed to the group that ultimately recommended something called the Elected County Officials or ECO plan.
It was quite a deal.
Instead of working 40 years for a pension of 75 percent of their pay, elected officials could work only 20 — for 80 percent.
Better yet, the 80 percent calculation would be based on the last paycheck, not an average of the last four years, like most government workers. So late-career pay hikes spiked pension checks even higher.
Better still, elected officials didn't have to stay in office 20 years — just work in government for that time. Even years spent as, say, a lifeguard would count.
The boost wasn't painless for officials: They had to contribute 7.5 percent of their pay toward the pension, instead of the usual 4.5 percent.
But most of the extra costs were borne by county taxpayers. A specific price tag wasn't pegged to the plan, but a rough analysis told lawmakers the cost "could be significant."
That bothered three commission members: two Republican lawmakers and AFSCME's Scheff. They tried to kill what Scheff called a "windfall pension." But they were outvoted, and the commission recommended that lawmakers pass ECO. The proposal showed up in a 120-plus-page package of pension boosts for employees ranging from teachers to prison guards.
It had something in it for Democrats and Republicans alike. The bill's Senate sponsor told his colleagues the array of perks wouldn't cost the state a dime.
The legislation passed the Senate 55-2.
It moved to the House, where noise from chatty lawmakers drowned out a brief discussion of the proposal. Before the vote, one lawmaker invited everyone to the front of the chamber for a slice of birthday cake.
It passed 105-10.
Gov. Jim Edgar soon signed it into law, but there was one catch: County Boards had to approve the pension perk. After all, taxpayers in those counties would foot the bill for generations to come.
That's when a real debate emerged, and in DuPage County, Maio found himself at the center of it.
By the late 1990s, Maio had developed a reputation as the board's budget expert. He led contentious land preservation efforts and complicated flood-control projects. Maio said he once saved the county millions by using reservoir dirt to redo a public golf course, instead of trucking it farther to a landfill.
But in 1998, he had to take a stand on a controversial perk for himself.
More than half of Illinois' counties, including Will, had voted to join the ECO plan. But others questioned the costs. Lake and Kane voted the idea down. McHenry took a pass.
DuPage officials estimated the perk would cost $300,000 extra a year. Maio told the Tribune at the time that he would support it only if "it's in the long-term interests of the taxpayers."
It was an election year, and others opposed it. That included departing board Chairman Gayle Franzen and the man running to replace him, Robert Schillerstrom.
But Franzen stepped down before the November election. Board member John Case was appointed temporary chairman. A week after the election — before Schillerstrom took office — Case called for a vote on ECO.
It passed 16-4, with Maio voting for it.
Six days later, he asked to join the new plan. Others did, too, including three who either voted or campaigned against it: Schillerstrom and members Robert Schroeder and Olivia Gow. Months after the vote, Case signed up and retired. Twelve others on the board that day have since retired under the plan.
One board member, Gwen Henry, joined but later opted out of the plan. Henry, now the county treasurer, said she did so once she realized its true costs to taxpayers.
Maio doesn't share her view. He said he believed the higher costs were largely covered by public officials' extra contributions. Any additional costs were worth it, he said, to help full-time elected officials get a fair pension — even if it helped part-timers, too.
"I wasn't hypocritical by saying I'm opposed to it and then still taking it, like some others."
Hefty pay raises
Six months after the DuPage vote, state lawmakers tightened the rules after a chorus of complaints over the perk's costs. House and Senate sponsors blamed county officials' "abuse" of the system.
Novak said "no one foresaw" the abuses, particularly by part-time officeholders: "I wish I was smart enough to know all the possible things that could happen."
But the legislators' vote had no legal effect on Maio or others who had already joined the plan.
In fact the DuPage County Board members improved their pension prospects even more, voting a succession of pay raises. By 2005, the salary had almost doubled to $48,620 a year, not counting extra money for leadership duties.
Maio could have served out his term and retired in 2006 at age 61 with a public pension starting at $43,000. It would have been nearly twice what he would have gotten under the system for regular employees.
But he sought a job that paid even more. He unsuccessfully lobbied party insiders in 2004 to back him for the $116,000-a-year office of coroner.
A year later, Maio landed a $90,000-a-year job with new Circuit Clerk Chris Kachiroubas, also of Addison Township. Maio had helped run Kachiroubas' campaign a year earlier, and Kachiroubas offered Maio a newly created position to collect past-due court fines.
Maio said he took the full-time job for the challenge, not the boosted pension. He could have retired right after getting it, he said, and collected $72,000 a year in pension checks, but he stayed five years and gave up his side jobs.
Those extra years dramatically boosted his pension, again.
Pay raises were small at first. It took 13 months for his first raise of 5 percent, then another 20 months for a 3 percent raise.
Then big raises started coming from Kachiroubas — and quickly:
•In five months, he got a 6 percent raise.
•Seven months after that, in June 2009, another 3 percent.
•And eight months later, an 18 percent raise.
Maio retired six months after that — in August 2010 — at a salary of $125,000.
That meant his pension started at $100,000.
The director of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, which manages the county pension plan, called it a case of pension spiking.
"It only hurts DuPage County and its taxpayers," said Louis Kosiba.
Kachiroubas disagrees. He said the raises rewarded Maio for collecting $10 million in overdue fines and for promotions in which he oversaw more employees.
"I would defy anyone," Kachiroubas said, "to tell me this man didn't deserve everything I paid him."
Kachiroubas also said he didn't expect Maio to retire so soon. Maio said he didn't either, until three months after getting the big raise, when doctors convinced him he needed surgery for lingering injuries from a 2006 motorcycle crash.
By then, Maio and his wife bought a $635,000 home near an Arizona country club: a 3,700-square-foot house with a three-car garage.
He said it's a winter home, and the timing — buying it four months before the big raise — had to do with the housing market, not retirement plans.
"The stars all lined up," he said.
Over a recent breakfast in a Wood Dale restaurant, Maio defended his pension as a reward for decades of public service.
"I worked seven days a week my whole life," he said, between bites of an English muffin and sips of black coffee. "I never had a paid vacation or a paid holiday until I worked for Chris Kachiroubas. That's my work ethic."
The restaurant is a short walk to the Honorary William J. Maio Jr. Highway, a stretch of Prospect Avenue running through Itasca that his old board colleagues renamed for Maio in 2006, citing his public service.
He said he never computed how much of his pension was covered by his contributions. He figured it was about average.
According to pension data, all the money he contributed over the years — even counting accumulated interest — was $150,000. That's just 11 percent of the $1.36 million the pension fund estimates will be needed to cover his and any surviving spouse's retirement checks.
Other local ECO retirees had higher pension costs, led by former State's Attorney Joseph Birkett's $2.2 million. But they worked longer at higher-paying jobs, ensuring they contributed a higher percent of their pension's ultimate cost.
Maio said he's a scapegoat of misplaced outrage.
"I know right now attacking people on public pensions is in vogue," he said. "But that doesn't mean that people who devoted their entire lives to public service don't deserve their pensions."
Critics say Maio deserved a pension — just not such an expensive one borne largely by DuPage taxpayers.
"These are premium dollars that could be better spent elsewhere," said current board Chairman Dan Cronin.
State lawmakers are considering returning elected county officials to the regular pensions of pre-1998.
Cronin said that if lawmakers don't, the board should look at it for DuPage.
Any such changes, however, would affect only newly elected officials.
As for those who remain in the system, they will keep their bigger retirement checks, which will grow 3 percent every year.