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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 12:19 am

Pipes and patronage

Sewer district pays well

 

Daniel Mills, son of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Mills, lost his license to practice law in 2009, three years after he was walked out of the state’s attorney’s office where he’d worked as an assistant prosecutor

The state Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission says he’d been buying cocaine. In 2008, Mills pleaded guilty to gun offenses and possession of a pot pipe – the ARDC says he threatened someone with a pistol and had a pipe in his pocket when cops arrested him. “The hearing board also found that respondent did not understand the nature and seriousness of his misconduct; did not show any remorse for his misconduct; was not fully candid or forthright in his testimony,” commission officials wrote in a motion to the state Supreme Court, which suspended Mills’ license to practice law.

At his current salary, Mills, if he still worked for the state’s attorney’s office, would be the sixth-highest paid employee. Instead, he ranks 39th at the Sangamon County Water Reclamation District, where he earns $77,604 a year as an operator, considerably more than the $33,056 he was making as a prosecutor for the state’s attorney’s office in 2006. With health insurance and sick time, Mills’ compensation at the water reclamation district totals $92,310, which makes him one of the district’s lower paid employees.

The water reclamation district employs 65 people; 43 have six-figure compensation packages, thanks mostly to health insurance plans that cost the district as much as $27,588 per employee. That’s substantially more than other wastewater districts pay. In Peoria, where the most expensive insurance plan costs ratepayers $21,942 per year, 14 of 75 employees have six-figure compensation packages. In Champaign-Urbana, the priciest insurance policy costs ratepayers $13,879 a year, and six of 47 employees have compensation packages of at least $100,000.

In baseball terms, Peoria and Champaign-Urbana are both batting below the Mendoza Line when it comes to spending six figures on employees. In Springfield, we are veritable Babe Ruths, giving more than 66 percent of sewer district employees compensation packages worth at least $100,000.

Why so much?

Gregg Humphrey, water reclamation executive director, points out that health insurance costs are driving six-figure compensation packages, and he’s right: Just three district employees are getting paid $100,000 or more in salary. Why does health insurance cost so much? District employees, Humphrey answers, need top-notch health plans because human excrement can carry nasty diseases such as cholera. Perhaps our poo is more potent than in Peoria.

Humphrey can’t recall a case of an employee coming down with cholera, although workers, he says, have developed some crappy infections. “It’s a hazardous occupation,” Humphrey says. “We’re not like crab fishing boats or lumberjacks in terms of on-the-job injuries, but we’re up there.” Fair enough, but why do office workers get health plans that cost ratepayers nearly $30,000 per year? Diseases can spread, Humphrey observes, and so clerical workers risk catching bugs that other employees might carry. Excellent point. Make sure you wear a moon suit next time you visit district headquarters to pay your bill.

If it sounds like I’m jealous, if it sounds like I want that job, well, yes: I might, and I’m willing to work hard, as I’m sure district employees do. Openings are not rare. Through September, the most recent month for which the district has posted minutes of board meetings, the district this year has hired five laborers who start out at about $35,000 a year, with opportunity for advancement. Mills, for example, has more than doubled his salary since being hired four years ago and getting promoted from janitor to operator, which involves monitoring, maintaining and repairing wastewater equipment.

Humphrey says he can’t comment on Mills’ past, but everyone deserves a second chance. Mills isn’t the only one with a familiar last name. A Schaive works for the district, as does a Cimmarosa. Bruce Stratton, a lawyer active in the GOP -- he’s counsel for the Sangamon County Republican Foundation -- is an attorney for the district, which also employs his daughter-in-law Julie as a benefits coordinator, a step up from her prior position as a receptionist. Julie Stratton wasn’t ready for her new duties when she was promoted a year ago, so the district gave an employment contract to her predecessor, who was retiring, so that she could train Stratton. Meanwhile, the district hired a temporary worker to work as a receptionist while Stratton learned the ropes.

Humphrey says that last names don’t matter: Bruce Rushton has as good a chance as anyone at landing a job at the district. I’m already pretty busy, so I’m not sure I would have the time, but I could probably handle a part-time gig on the board of trustees, which approves every new hire as well as the district’s budget.

Through September, trustees, who get paid $6,000 per year, have spent 81 minutes in monthly meetings that have been as short as four minutes. Every vote taken by the board has been unanimous going back to at least 2011, with monthly meetings taking about five hours per year. At the annual rate of pay for each commissioner, that’s $1,200 per hour.

But that’s a story for another day.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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