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Sheriff collects $90K pension

December 2, 2018

KANKAKEE — Mike Downey retired from the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Department on May 9, 2016, allowing him to receive an about $90,000-per-year pension.

Here’s the thing, though: Downey still works for the department. He’s the sheriff.

Because of a quirk in pension law, Downey was able to start collecting a pension once he became sheriff, a $102,000-a-year job. With his promotion, he nearly doubled his income, thanks to his pension.

Downey retired a day before the Kankakee County Board unanimously voted to appoint him as sheriff, replacing the longtime sheriff, Tim Bukowski, who retired.

Downey joined the sheriff’s office in 1986 and served in leadership roles for 22 years as a probation supervisor, chief of corrections and undersheriff before becoming sheriff. He ran unopposed as a Republican in the 2016 and 2018 elections.

In 2017, Downey got the fifth highest pension at $89,640 among county government retirees, according to OpenTheBooks.com. The top recipient was Michael Kick, who received a $109,764 that year. He is a local circuit judge and former Kankakee County state’s attorney.

Bukowski, who started getting a pension the year he left the sheriff’s office, was third highest at $98,820.

In Illinois, public pensioners receive automatic, compounded 3 percent increases each year. At that rate, Downey will pull in $92,329 in 2018. By 2022, the final year of his current term, he will make nearly $104,000, more than his current sheriff’s salary.

Generally, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, which covers counties, bars members of its pension funds from taking jobs with employers in its system. When it finds members violating this rule, it requires them to pay back the money they illegally received.

Downey, however, is not considered a “return to work” case because he is serving in a different position as the sheriff, an elected position, said Nisa Neely, a spokeswoman for IMRF. He chose not to continue in the pension system and is no longer paying into it.

IMRF members “are allowed to collect their pensions while serving as elected officials, as long as no part of their pensions were earned for that position and they do not opt in to IMRF participation,” Neely said in an email. “This rule applies whether a person is actually elected to a post or if he or she assumes the role by appointment.”

Downey, who was 54 when he started collecting his pension, said he had already been contemplating retirement when Bukowski decided to depart. He said an IMRF representative suggested to him that he collect a pension, be appointed sheriff and collect his sheriff’s salary. He said he didn’t know he had that ability before that.

“I don’t make up the rules,” the sheriff said.

Downey said he is saving the county $50,000 a year because he is on his wife’s health insurance and the county no longer contributes pension payments for him.

Adam Schuster, director of budget and tax research for the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, said the state should outlaw public employees from collecting government pensions while still working.

“The very least we can do is cut down on abuses. That means stopping things like double-dipping by collecting pensions while you’re still working,” Schuster said in an interview.

He said he “absolutely” considers the local situation double-dipping.

At the same time, he said people should avoid demonizing pensioners.

“They are taking advantage of the rules available to them,” Schuster said.

County board member Jim Byrne, R-Bradley, chairman of the criminal justice committee, said the sheriff was open with county officials about his retirement. He added the county has not filled the undersheriff’s position that Downey held, saving the county money.

Byrne said he understands the pension exception for elected officials, given they have less job security than other employees because they must face voters every four years.

“Mike does really good work. I’ve been on the board since 2011, and he is the real deal. He looks out for the financial interests of the the county,” Byrne said.

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