Fire chief accused of ‘double dipping’ on pension

Susan Du

When then-Evanston Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky retired last May, he wanted a vacation and a chance to see “what it’s like to be bored.” But when Berkowsky came out of retirement and returned to service April 4, this time as Winnetka Fire Department’s fire chief, some residents questioned the integrity of his actions.

Berkowsky, who had worked with the Evanston fire department for 29 years, has been receiving an annual pension of about $100,000 from the city of Evanston since his retirement. His new job is reportedly paying him more than $120,000, and this has led some Evanston residents to suggest that Berkowsky is “double dipping” or taking advantage of the system. After he serves 10 years on the job in Winnetka, he would be eligible for a second pension, Winnetka Village Manager Rob Bahan told TribLocal two weeks ago.

Several residents commented on Evanston Now’s April 5 story on Berkowsky’s new job and expressed outrage over his receiving a six-figure pension at the same time that the city’s budget is steadily declining.

Berkowsky told The Daily he wasn’t sure how to respond to the accusations.

“There are two separate systems and two separate funding mechanisms,” Berkowsky said. “One doesn’t have anything to do with the other. I’ve had 29 years in Evanston and that was a long career. I’m not sure what the expectation is. It’s not very fair.”

A primary concern in Evanston’s budget is how to pay for fire and police pensions, of which the city already owes $175 million, according to a March 2010 actuary estimate.

Current Evanston Fire Chief Greg Klaiber said Berkowsky is protected under current pension laws, regardless of the outrage.

“The taxpayers of Evanston would pay Alan’s pension whether he were employed elsewhere or not,” Klaiber said. “I understand the concern expressed, but there’s nothing that can be done about it short of changing legislation.”

Berkowsky’s case brings to light an ongoing debate over how public officials’ wages and pensions should fare in times of economic crisis. Evanston already changed its pension policy for firemen hired after Jan. 1, 2011, reducing their future pensions. However, firemen like Berkowsky, who have served decades on the force and paid into their pensions with every paycheck, will have the benefits originally promised to them upon retirement.

“We don’t get Social Security, too,” Klaiber said. “We contribute to the pension fund 9.5 percent of every paycheck while the average person in the private sector contributes 6.2 percent into a Social Security fund. We rely totally on our pension.”

According to Klaiber, the fire department’s pension fund has been affected just as negatively by the economic downturn as many other government departments. The system, he said, is already flawed.

For instance, pensions are funded by firefighters themselves as well as the city of Evanston. However, decades of underfunding by previous city councils have produced a deficit in the pension fund, which is paying out more than it’s taking in, Klaiber said. The city contributes whatever their actuaries say they should contribute every year, he said. However, past actuaries fed the city bogus numbers, leading to massive underfunding of the system, according to Klaiber.

Berkowsky said he retired last May for personal reasons, telling his co-workers he needed to reassess and decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. After some months of sun and sleep, he eventually decided what he wanted to do was return to work.

Klaiber acknowledged Berkowsky could have taken an unpaid leave of absence months ago to mull over the same issues, but that’s different from retiring and receiving a pension, he said. Ultimately, whether Berkowsky’s decision was backed by the intent to “cheat the system” is only speculation, and his changeover was accomplished entirely legally, Klaiber said.

“It’s not uncommon for chiefs to retire and reapply in a different municipality,” he said.

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