Health admin's retirement deal draws criticism

County health official receives $47K for unused vacation time

The $47,479 parting gift that former McHenry County Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty received raised the blood pressure of a County Board committee.

McNulty, who retired at the end of May after 35 years with the McHenry County Department of Health, cashed in about 80 days of unused vacation time, or about four years' worth, given the rate at which he accumulated it, according to records. While county government in 2006 significantly curtailed how much vacation time employees can carry over, the Board of Health at the time granted McNulty an exemption.

The fact that McNulty's case is unique, and that allegations of other health department executives having similar deals turned out to be unfounded, was not much of a consolation to the County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee. Member Paula Yensen, who addressed the issue at Wednesday's meeting after learning of it, said taxpayers gave him "a very nice going-away present."

"I don't know of anyone in the business world who gets that kind of a deal," said Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills. "Most businesses require their employees to take their vacation or lose it, at most rolling over one week of vacation to the next year. But McNulty got a sweet deal due to a questionable decision by the Board of Health. I can't blame McNulty for taking advantage of the gift. But I do question why the Board of Health allowed this."

The makeup of the 12-member Board of Health has almost completely changed since the exemption was granted. But the retirement payout may end up as a supporting argument if the County Board decides to take advantage of an impending state law that would grant it greater power to remove appointees from boards and commissions for not following financial, ethical and other guidelines.

McNulty's cashed in 645 hours of vacation, calculated on the $143,526 salary he made at the time of his retirement, resulting in a starting monthly Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund pension of $7,943, or $95,316 a year, according to information obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The IMRF said that figure likely will change slightly when it obtains his final wage report for June from the county.

Because IMRF is administered differently from the five state-run pension systems – for example, its 3 percent cost-of living increase is not compounded – the impact of the vacation payout to his pension will not be as significant. Monthly pension is calculated by the average of the four-year bloc of highest income, which is typically at the end of a career. His 35 years qualify him for a monthly payout of 65 percent of that final calculated salary – McNulty was appointed to the health department's top spot in 2001.

However, a 2011 law meant to discourage "golden parachute" pension bumps will require the county to pay more into IMRF to compensate for the increase. Unlike the state-run pension systems, governments are required by law to pay into IMRF what its actuarial requires – and unlike the state-run systems which have at least $100 billion in unfunded liabilities, IMRF is solvent and almost fully funded.

County Administrator Peter Austin and acting Public Health Administrator Joseph Gugle reassured committee members that McNulty was the only exemption made by the Board of Health. While the County Board is responsible for appointing the health board's 12 members, which includes a County Board member, state law gives health boards significant managerial autonomy.

Austin is credited with prioritizing reform of vacation payouts upon his 2005 hiring as administrator. County employees can accumulate no more than an additional 50 percent of their vacation time – for example, an employee who gets two weeks a year can accumulate no more than one additional week.

County government in recent years has pushed to bring the various boards to which it appoints into greater or complete compliance with its hiring and personnel policies. Aside from McNulty's exemption, Austin said, the health board's policy manual is practically identical to the county's.

A bill awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature would allow the boards of larger counties like McHenry to draft accountability standards for appointees to boards and commissions, and empower them to remove violators with a hearing and a two-thirds majority vote.

Yensen is chairwoman of the County Board Management Services Committee, which would be responsible for drafting said standards.

The pension reform bill approved last year by state lawmakers contains a provision that prevents future participants in the state-run pension systems and IMRF from applying lump-sum payments for vacation and sick leave toward their pensionable salary. But that change has been stayed by the courts, along with the rest of the reform bill, as they deliberate lawsuits from public-sector unions challenging the reform bill's constitutionality.