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Paramedics Pensions in House Hands

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Action pending in Springfield could have a positive effect on the retirement plans of three long-serving Barrington paramedics but could also cost Barrington taxpayers up to $1.8 million.

A bill that s passed the Senate and awaits a House vote would allow the Barrington Fire Department s three longest-serving members and possibly up to five others to retroactively boost their pensions.

The paramedics want their early years of service counted toward their state firefighter retirement fund pensions, rather than the lesser-paying Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund they paid into at the time. But they qualified for the more lucrative fund only after the village established a full-time department in 1995.

Senate passage several weeks ago came after a failed attempt by the village of Barrington to rally opposition to it, provoking a battle with Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District trustees, who support the measure.

The fire district covers a territory outside of Barrington and contracts with the Barrington Fire Department for service.

This battle is also being played out in court, as the paramedics also filed legal action against the village. They lost the most recent round in court but are still fighting on that front, too.

The employees affected Jim Feit, Char McLear and Chris Toussaint began working for Barrington as full-time paramedics in the 1970s and 80s.

Village Manager Denise Pieroni said Barrington intentionally retained a paid-on-call department as long as possible for its cost-effectiveness.

When the full-time department was created, paramedics stopped earning credit in Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund and started contributing to the firefighter pension fund.

Five other paramedics who d accrued less than the minimum eight years to earn Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund benefits cashed in their contributions, at a loss, to move into the firefighter fund.

One of the village s concerns if the bill passes is that those paramedics, in addition to the three in question, could also seek a pension boost, Pieroni said. That s why the village says this could cost taxpayers as much as $1.8 million.

Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District Trustee Paul Heinze said the problem Feit, McLear and Toussaint faced was that they were strung along with promises that something would be worked out to roll their former contributions into the new fund without significant loss.

It hasn t.

The bill s Senate sponsor, Elgin Democrat Michael Noland, said the village of Barrington "completely left these people behind.

"Barrington sought a loophole," he said. "It was a selfish act early on, and there was no reason for it."

But Pieroni said these paramedics could have cashed in their earlier pension earnings in 1995 but chose not to. And she argues that, had the department not made the full-time switch in 1995 and the employees remained in the older pension fund, they d be worse off now.

Advocates for the paramedics disagree. Heinze said having their careers split between the two funds significantly reduces the benefits from either one alone. They believe they now have to delay retirement and work longer to boost their pensions, he said.

Supporters of the fire department personnel point to six Barrington police officers who recently took early retirement and will earn 70 percent to 75 percent of their salaries for the rest of their lives.

Feit, on the other hand, is a 33-year veteran but, were he to retire this month, would earn a pension worth only 13 percent of his salary. McLear, a 29-year veteran, would earn 5 percent of her salary and 29-year veteran Toussaint 4 percent of his, Heinze said.

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