Frustrated, disappointed and angry over personal attacks stemming from media coverage about the details that led to his disability and the pension he received in 2010 after serving 22 years on the Chicago Ridge Police Department, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann shared his story.
Sitting in a meeting room at Village Hall, Baldermann explained his purpose for setting the record straight. "I think it's important that the community has confidence in their leaders."
Sun-Times Media reported that Baldermann gets $129,192 a year in disability pay, the highest found in the newspaper's investigation into police and fire pensions, according to the newspaper.
Elected officials expect to "take shots, fair or not, but what you should never have to accept are personal attacks that are untrue. It undermines the community."
He added, "I appreciated the overwhelming support I've gotten from the community. What I don't like are the people who don't take time to learn the truth. I don't appreciate anonymous comments coming from people who are angry and have their own agenda."
Having joined the Chicago Ridge Police Department at the age of 21, Baldermann said he worked his way up from patrolman. He became chief of police in 2001. It wasn't an office job for him. A graduate of the FBI School in Quantico, VA, he regularly went into the field and was always present for serious crime investigation and incidents involving a death. "I led by example," he said.
Remembering the day in June 2008 that he was called to an investigation of the death of a 17-year-old girl who died of unknown causes, Baldermann said he joined the officers present and helped to process the scene. Because the Medical Examiner's Office in Cook County does not send staff to the scene of a death, police departments are tasked with the job of transporting bodies to the office in Chicago.
How he injured his back and the resulting surgery
"This body was on the second floor of a home, and the only way to bring the body down" was through a narrow, outdoor staircase that featured a 90-degree turn half-way down. Having laid the body on a backboard, Baldermann said he and another officer prepared to carry it down the narrow stairway. "I took the head of the backboard," and stepped backwards down the stairs, while another officer descended the stairs facing front and holding onto the other half of the backboard.
Demonstrating the descent, Baldermann held his arms up to his shoulders and even higher in the way that he moved the body down the stairs. In order to turn in such tight quarters, he said, he was forced to lift the backboard high, while turning his head to navigate the stairs around the turn.
"As I go to make the turn, that's when it popped," he said about his back.
The two stopped, and Baldermann told the other officer, "I hurt my back." After pausing a few moments, his back was sore but he had to finish the decline. There was no room for anyone else to get around.
As was practice, the sergeant on shift was supposed to write a report about every injury suffered by a police officer. And he did, said Baldermann, except that shift didn't end until about 5 a.m. the next morning. So technically, the report wasn't filed until the next day, he said.
Meanwhile, "I thought I probably just pulled a muscle in my back." After a few weeks, the soreness refused to fade. "Then I started getting a tingling feeling down my (right) leg." He went to the doctor and was told to see a specialist. "The MRI showed a herniated disc," which was attributed to the incident.
Several months of therapy to manipulate the back failed to produce any favorable results, said Baldermann, who then underwent months of injections directly into the back. That failed too to correct the problem. In the fall of 2009, he had "back fusion" surgery. With titanium brackets and screws, the surgeon put a cadaver bone in the disc.
However, because the disc had "completely broken off," there was permanent nerve damage, he said. Today, he limps and suffers still from numbness and a tingling sensation in his leg.
Placed on disability
Baldermann said he hadn't intended on going on disability. "I talked to the (Chicago Ridge Police) Pension Board" and asked them "if I could stay on if I adjusted (the style of on-the-scene leadership.) They said, 'no.'"
"I asked the mayor if I could stay on as a civilian" in the role of employee liaison, a role that he served in combination with his job as a police chief. As an employee liaison, Baldermann worked with village staff at large. The mayor denied his request.
The pension and disability agreement
Baldermann filed a Worker's Compensation claim and was awarded a lump sum of $101,000. The pension amounted to $129,000. However, he was required to forfeit any post-retirement health care benefits.
According to the Public Safety Employee Benefit Act, Baldermann said he would have received free health insurance benefits for him and his family for the rest of his life. The forfeiture of those benefits saved the Village of Chicago Ridge a significant amount.
He explained that the health insurance package in Chicago Ridge at the time costs employees about $20,000 a year for family coverage. Those costs rise at least 5 percent annually. When compounded and calculated to age 75, the savings to Chicago Ridge comes in "about $1.4 million," he said.
Before the economy tanked in late 2008, municipalities had generous pension packages, and Chicago Ridge was no different. Because the administrators were non-union employees, the village board would work out individual compensation plans. Baldermann recalled that upon retirement the former public works director was gifted with a car, and the former police chief "got several raises at the end of his career. He was paid a check for over $35,000 for unused vacation and sick days."
It was common practice for union police and firefighters to get a 20 percent pay increase on their last day, according to Baldermann. It was overly generous, and the village board recognized it.
The board changed its practices. Instead of a mountain of perks, the board adopted in February 2005 an "administrative work agreement" for retirement. It included a package that combined unused vacation together with the salary. The caveat here is that the previous practice of the village paying 75 percent of health care for the retiree, spouse and dependents for 10 years came to an end, Baldermann said.
The new work agreement, as implemented in 2005, provided two retiring deputy police officers with vacation added to a salary that was bumped up by 20 percent at the end of their career. "
At the time, it made sense because not paying for health insurance" was considered by the village as a significant savings, Baldermann said.
The Police Pension Board's response
The Police Pension Board told the village that pension spikes were costly. Instead of advising the village board to halt the practice all together, members suggested that the village board increase the amount paid into the pension fund.
The village's police pensions were funded by a 10 percent deduction from every check from every police officer, and the Pension Board made investments with the funds. The third source of pension funding comes from the taxpayers of Chicago Ridge. Baldermann pointed out that no state money or funds from anyone outside the community were part of the program.
"Zero money came from the state" or other sources, he said. "This means zero dollars" from the residents of New Lenox.
With the approval of the Pension Board, more than a dozen police officers in Chicago Ridge received that package, including salary enhancements at the end of their careers, according to Baldermann.
Baldermann acknowledges that the pension package was significant. It's a practice that municipalities and others are re-examining.
In April 2010, Baldermann went on disability and receives $129,000 a year. He anticipates a second surgery on another disc that's currently under pressure and perhaps even a third operation.
The doctors tell him, "I should stay as active as I possibly can, because it's good for your health. I'm not disabled from life. I'm disabled from being a police officer."
The Pension Board unanimously approved Baldermann's pension and the village clerk prepared the figures. "It was all done publically….I didn't ask for this. It was approved."
Pension Board objections
The Pension Board has 35 days to review pension payout plans. It took seven months to decide to review Baldermann's package. Meanwhile, Baldermann said, another police officer—Dennis Kapelinski, a former deputy police chief—retired a month after Baldermann with a hefty retirement package as well.
Current court action
Baldermann and Kapelinski have hired a lawyer to represent them against the Police Pension Board, which decided to review their work agreements when the economy took a turn for the worse. However, Baldermann said his attorney is challenging what he refers to as "an illegal hearing," because it was called nearly six months after the designated 35-day review period.
The challenge is floundering in Cook County Circuit Court. Baldermann doesn't anticipate action for in the spring. In the meantime, he's still receiving a monthly payment of $10,700.
As mayor of New Lenox, Baldermann receives an annual salary of $18,000. In June he was also hired as superintendent of the Union School District 81, where he gets an annual salary of $127,000.