Lake board member's motive questioned in giving back raise

  • Suzi Schmidt.

    Suzi Schmidt.

Published: 8/15/2009 12:01 AM

Citing the area's economic woes, more than half of the Lake County Board's 23 members say they will refund pay raises scheduled for later this year.

But some commissioners also question board Chairwoman Suzi Schmidt's motives for pushing the issue, and a news release publicizing her request.

Schmidt is the only board member identified in the release as intending to return the roughly $1,600 annual raise, even though many others have publicly opposed the salary bump and argued against such increases in the past.

"Many of us ... had already indicated we did not intend to take a raise," Grayslake Democrat Melinda Bush said. "The press release is very misleading."

Schmidt's decision is an about-face for the Lake Villa Republican, who voted for pay raises in 2008. Some members think Schmidt's reversal is a political ploy aimed at helping her upcoming campaign for the state Senate.

"I hope we don't spend the next month with Suzi Schmidt using the county to run her Senate race," Bush said.

Schmidt said she made the announcement now because county administrators are negotiating contracts with unions representing various employees, Schmidt said.

"I wanted to make sure the employees knew (the raises could be returned)," said Schmidt, the panel's leader since 2000. "I've never played politics with my county-board chairmanship, and I don't intend to do it now."

The annual salary for nearly every county board member this year is $39,370. Schmidt will collect about $80,000, plus extra stipends, because she's the chairwoman.

The board, which has seen its membership change over the past year because of the fall election and several subsequent resignations, approved four years' worth of raises in May 2008. Salaries are set every two years.

The 2008 vote was close, passing 13-10.

At the time, proponents said the percentage increases matched planned raises for county employees. Opponents said the raises didn't make sense during an economic downturn. As times have worsened, their number has grown.

Among the converts is Lake Bluff Republican Susan Loving Gravenhorst.

"It seems like the proper thing to do," she said. "If we are in positions of leadership, we must set an example."

That's especially the case now, some board members said, because officials recently laid off 18 employees.

"If we're looking at (layoffs) and other cuts, it's important that we tighten our belts first," said Vernon Hills Republican Aaron Lawlor, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board last month.

If all 23 commissioners refuse the next scheduled raise, it would put more than $36,000 back in the county's coffers.

Fourteen commissioners told the Daily Herald this week they will return the raise. Ten are Republicans: Schmidt, Gravenhorst, Lawlor, David Stolman of Buffalo Grove, Steve Carlson of Gurnee, Craig Taylor of Lake Zurich, Brent Paxton of Zion, Stevenson Mountsier of Lake Barrington, Diana O'Kelly of Mundelein, and Ann Maine of Lincolnshire. Four are Democrats: Bush, Michelle Feldman of Deerfield, Pat Carey of Grayslake, and Collin O'Rourke of Waukegan.

Democrats Angelo Kyle of Waukegan, Mary Ross Cunningham of Waukegan and Audrey Nixon of North Chicago said they were undecided.

Six others couldn't be reached for comment.

Kyle scoffed at the amount that could be saved and called Schmidt's push a hypocritical political gesture.

"Is that going to balance a half-billion-dollar budget? It's insignificant," he said.