Illinois government’s $100K salary and pension club: 140,000 members and rising


University of Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood had a salary of $4.194 million in 2023. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

More than 140,000 Illinois government workers and retirees took in more than $100,000 in salaries or pensions in 2023, according to data collected by Wirepoints via FOIA.

That’s more than a 50% percent jump since Open the Books counted 94,000 government members with $100K compensation back in 2018. The list includes active workers and pensioners from all levels of state and local government, except for Illinois’ 650 downstate public safety plans, for which Wirepoints did not obtain individual data.

The teacher category led the list due to the scale of the state’s education system. More than 33,000 active teachers and administrators across the state made more than $100,000, while another nearly 23,000 pensioners took in as much. The state’s universities also had 23,000 active workers and retirees making over $100,000 last year. And it was the same for more than 17,000 current and former state employees. 

And as we point out in detail further below, the individual compensation numbers get big, too. Peter Murphy, President and CEO of Illinois’ Association of Park Districts made nearly $468,000. Brad Cole of the Illinois Municipal League took in over $505,000. Kent Custer, Chief Investment Officer at Illinois Police Officers’ Pension Investment Fund, received $333,000. And Brian Townsend at the Village of Schaumburg made $343,000.

Those big compensation numbers are similar to the K-12 superintendent numbers we reported on recently in our piece titled New Trier School District set to produce the next $8 million superintendent pensioner. Take home pay for the top active and retired superintendents ranges from $300,000 to $500,000.

In all, Illinois has more than 100,000 active workers making more than $100,000, while more than 43,000 retirees take in pensions bigger than $100K. Add them all up and they now total more than 140,000, about the population of Rockford, Illinois’ fifth-largest city. 

The number of government workers in the $100K-plus club matters because of who benefits and who pays. 

Most government employees work under multi-year contracts that include automatic salary and benefit increases. Government retirees get lifetime pensions boosted by automatic cost-of-living (COLA) increases. Other benefits like the ability to cash in unused sick leave for pay or service credit also provides compensation bumps.

Much of that built-in pay and benefits is constitutionally protected. And Amendment 1, known as the “Workers Rights Amendment,” now enshrines public union powers directly into the constitution.

In contrast, ordinary Illinois residents have no such guaranteed benefits and protections, but they’re forced to pay the nation’s highest property taxes, and one of the highest tax burdens overall, to fund those $100,000-plus salaries and pensions. 

Illinoisans are already leaving – the combination of high costs and an uncompetitive job market means many simply can’t afford to be here. And as the government’s $100k club grows bigger, it will further stress the finances of ordinary residents whose median earnings (for workers over 18) total just $44,765, and where the average Social Security benefit is less than $23,000.

The heavy hitters

School superintendents dominate the top of K-12 education salaries and pensions in the state. As we noted with soon-to-be-retired New Trier Superintendent Paul Sally, many superintendents will collect more than $8 million in total lifetime benefits during their retirement.

Kevin Nohelty, the current superintendent of Dolton SD 148, receives almost a half million a year to run a school district where just 14% of students can read at grade level and only 6% are proficient in math. If he were to retire tomorrow, Nohelty could expect an annual pension of nearly $300,000 and would receive over $12 million in total lifetime benefits.

Laura Murray, formerly of Homewood-Flossmoor 233 – where just 22% of children are reading proficient – has the 4th-highest annual K-12 pension at over $376,000 a year. Because she retired in her 50’s with a final average salary of $320,000, Murray is in line to collect over $10.2 million in pension benefits – the most of any retired educator in Illinois.

There is one notable non-superintendent on the list. The former union president of the National Education Association teachers union, Reginald Weaver, receives a $356,000 state pension. That’s due to a loophole in the pension code that allowed union leaders to work briefly for the government in order to receive a public pension. 

The top ten salaries and pensions in higher education are primarily made up of the doctors who work in university hospital systems. Dr. Enrico Benedetti of the University of Illinois – Chicago is a transplant surgeon with nearly $1 million in compensation. Dr. Malek Massad is a cardiac surgeon making nearly $900,000. Jerry Kruse pulls in $700,000 a year as dean of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

Those big salaries lead to big pensions. Konstantin Slavin, a 54-year-old neurosurgeon at the University of Illinois – Chicago, draws the state’s largest pension benefit of $715,000 a year. His yearly cola increase alone is $21,500 – about as much as the average Social Security benefit in the U.S. If he lives to age 80, he’ll have received over $30 million in pension benefits from the state.

Two notable non-doctors on the university list are UIUC’s current men’s basketball coach Bradley Underwood, with a salary of nearly $4.2 million, and former U of I athletic director Ronald Guenther, with an annual pension of $402,000. Guenther will collect about $12 million in benefits during his retirement.

When it comes to lawmakers, Gov. J.B. Pritzker does not take a salary, so Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias and Attorney General Kwame Raoul top the lawmaker list with salaries of $192,465 each.

Recently-retired Jesse White tops the retiree list with an annual pension just over $260,000 a year. Despite retiring at age 88, far later than most government workers, White can still expect to collect over $1.3 million in retirement.

Chicago and local

On top of the five state-run pension funds, the City of Chicago and its sister governments have another six pension systems of their own.*

Chicago Public Schools has over 3,000 workers and retirees getting over $100,000 a year.  Thomas Gattuso, the principal of Sullivan House High School, tops the salary list at nearly $200,000 a year. 

The top CPS pension belongs to Mary McGuire, a former executive for the Chicago Teachers Union. Her $245,000 a year benefits is due to her exploiting the same pension loophole as retired NEA member Reginald Weaver.

You might have expected to see District CEO Pedro Martinez at the top of the list for Chicago Public Schools salaries. However, Chicago Board of Education administrators are members of the Chicago municipal workers pension fund, not the teachers fund.

Martinez tops the municipal fund’s salary list, pulling in $375,000 a year from Chicago taxpayers. Mayor Brandon Johnson’s $216,000 a year puts him in the top ten also.

Meanwhile, the top Chicago municipal pension belongs to yet another beneficiary of the pension loophole for union leaders: Dennis Gannon. His current annual $232,000 pension was boosted when he was hired by the city for a single day then granted an indefinite leave of absence till his retirement at age 50. In all, Gannon can expect to receive over $5 million during his retirement.

The top $237,000 salary of the Chicago Laborer’s Pension Fund belongs to Victor Roa, a Streets and Sanitation worker who also serves as president of the pension fund itself.

And like the municipal fund above, union leaders are the top pension beneficiaries. Liberato Naimoli and James McNally are both former union bosses now getting annual benefits of $243,672 and $168,780, respectively. 

The top $237,000 salary of the Chicago Laborer’s Pension Fund belongs to Victor Roa, a Streets and Sanitation worker who also serves as president of the pension fund itself.

And like the municipal fund above, union leaders are the top pension beneficiaries. Liberato Naimoli and James McNally are both former union bosses now getting annual benefits of $243,672 and $168,780, respectively. 

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