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Evanston aldermen, part-time positions under the City’s Council/Manager form of government, would be able to fold in full health care benefits with the salaries they receive, lifting total compensation for their positions to just under $40,000 for members of the next City Council.

At the City Council Rules Committee meeting on Oct. 5, aldermen, some of whom could take advantage of the change if re-elected next year, showed consensus support for the move – a nearly 360° turn from the recommendations of the mayoral-appointed Citizens Compensation Committee.

Although the Rules Committee is composed of all 10 City Council members – the nine aldermen and the Mayor – City Council has the ultimate say over compensation.

Earlier this year, the members of that committee, citing the pandemic and sacrifices City employees were making, recommended zero percentage salary increases for the first two years of the next Council members terms as well as requiring members  to pay for their own family health-care services, though still receiving subsidized individual health insurance.

The changes would have resulted in savings of $440,000 over four years for the cash-strapped City, the group estimated.

“This year presents tremendous budget challenges for the City due to the pandemic, and the committee understands this,” the group said in its report. “Sacrifices and belt-tightening will be asked of all City employees, including its leaders, elected officials.”

Committee members cited a survey of 16 suburban northern suburban communities, including Evanston, showing that Evanston elected officials receive by far the highest compensation with only two of those towns offering health care benefits of any kind.

Aldermen, many of whom hold jobs outside the City, have cited the demands of the aldermanic job – attending the many meetings, and dealing with issues in a diverse urban community – as separating an Evanston aldermanic job from those of more homogeneous communities. 

At the Compensation Committee and also at the Rules Committee meetings, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, argued that the current compensation system was also discriminatory.

As one of the few aldermen only taking the individual health benefits insurance package, she received far less, close to $20,000, than her colleagues who received the city’s family health package, she estimated. 

She questioned, “How we as a Council can look at that and say, ‘equal pay for equal work.’ We should be receiving equal pay for equal work,” she said, speaking at the Oct. 5 Rules Committee meeting, which was held virtual because of social distancing rules.

She said the Compensation Committee’s recommendation to eliminate the City’s subsidized family health care package as an option was not the answer to the issue.

“I fought against that,” she told aldermen. “I said ‘how can you bring people down in order to make it equal.”

“There’s no way you can you can justify paying some aldermen $16,000 [the $15,990 salary they currently receive] and some aldermen $37,000 a year” [with the family health care benefits added in], she said. “And that’s what happens in the City of Evanston, and that is my argument: I want everybody to have all the insurance they need and I think the City should do most of the compensating for that insurance. But I think that it should be done by allowing us as adults to take that compensation and purchase insurance [through] the City or elsewhere.”

A number of aldermen gave quick support to Ald. Rainey’s idea of folding together salary with the family health care benefits value. Their current salaries of $15,990 would still track along the recommendations of the Compensation Committee at zero percent the first two years, similar to what city employees are receiving, with 2.5% and 3% increases the final two years of the new Council members term, raising aldermanic salaries to $16,882.

Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, spoke in support of Ald. Rainey on the change.

“I think this is also a more transparent way to do it, so it’s just the set number,” he said. “If you took the compensation amount and the insurance costs, and just made that the amount of the compensation, we could choose to get the coverage that we choose from that pool of money. That’s up to each individual person and their circumstances and needs, but it would be fair because everybody’s getting the same thing.”

That $37,800 would stand, say, even if a newly-elected alderman had their own health insurance and decided to stick with that and not take advantage of the benefits package offered by the City, aldermen appeared to agree.

The change would not affect the Mayor or City Clerk. Both are elected Citywide and the Clerk’s is a full-time position.

Some aldermen asked staff how to account for changes in the cost of health insurance over the four-year term of the next Council.

Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, asked, “Without questioning the legality of whatever combination is being proposed here,” what the deadline is “for us to have this locked in? Is it 180 days from when the new Council is sworn in?”

Acting Assistant City Manager Kimberly Richardson said the action has to be taken before the next day Council is seated. She told aldermen that officials hoped to incorporate the change as part of the budget process, which is just beginning, so a figure could be budgeted into the next budget cycle.

Mayor Stephen Hagerty said he hoped that “the City Council would make a decision, sooner rather than later, how it wants to proceed on this, because you know we’re in the petition period right now – there are people looking at whether to run or not.”

Ald. Rainey asked that the City’s Human Resources officials draft a memo

based on the Rules Committee discussion, setting out how the new pay system would work, including the calculation of taxes.

She pointed out that the $37,800 total “is just about what six aldermen are making right now… so it’s not a huge amount of money.”

Chairing the meeting, Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, suggested that “we just drop the discussion about insurance, and [agree] that is the responsibility of the alderman to pursue it, either with the City or on their own or take the risk of not being insured, and let’s just call it the aldermen will get a substantial raise to $37,000, a year in compensation.

“Do we need to discuss the technology benefit, or is that a separate discussion as part of the Rules [Committee]?” she asked about an issue she raised at a previous meeting about aldermen’s receiving some kind of stipend for the technology they are using.

Ald. Suffredin proposed further discussion with Human Resources staff about whether “what’s being discussed here is actually doable.”

He also suggested there is a public policy side to the issue of compensation – “where we need to make sure that candidates for office who file their petitions in November understand what their compensation might be should they be elected.”

He recommended that the Rules Committee meet on Oct. 19 to discuss and resolve any questions around the issue.

Ald. Rainey said she completely agreed with Ald. Suffredin on that point, and that “if we proceed along this track, any candidate who is out passing a petition, it sounds to me, can count on the aldermanic salary plus an additional compensation added to that so that they can shop and buy family insurance.”

The Rules Committee discussion can be found at the 18:30 minutes mark of the meeting on the City’s at