A former suburban fire chief will be allowed to draw his firefighter’s pension while still working for the same fire protection district he had led, after a state appeals court said, because the former chief doesn’t respond to fire calls, the fire district’s pension board had incorrectly attempted to deny him his pension when the board determined the former chief had reentered service as a firefighter after the district hired him back on in the role of “chief administrator.”
On June 14, a three-justice panel of the Illinois Third District Appellate Court, by a 2-1 decision, found state law meant Robert Cronholm, former chief of the Lockport Township Fire Protection District in southwest suburban Will County, was entitled to, simultaneously, collect his pension as a retired firefighter and a salary as an administrative professional, from the same public taxing body, despite the opinion of the Illinois Department of Insurance that this was improper.
The appellate opinion was authored by Justice Mary K. O’Brien, with Justice Vicki Wright concurring.
Justice Daniel L. Schmidt dissented.
“Since Cronholm could no longer participate in the work of controlling and extinguishing fires at the location of any such fires, he no longer qualified as a firefighter for purposes of the Pension Code and as such, the DOI’s interpretation was manifestly contrary to the statute,” the majority wrote.
The decision comes in a years-long legal conflagration dating back to October 2009, when Cronholm informed the Lockport fire district of his intent to retire and begin drawing retirement benefits. Within days, the district then, purportedly at the guidance of the district’s attorney, hired Cronholm back on in the role of “chief administrator,” under a three-year contract beginning Nov. 1, 2009.
The district’s pension board, however, asked the state’s DOI to weigh in on the retirement and rehire of Cronholm, asking whether hiring the purportedly retired fire chief on as a chief administrator, while allowing him to draw his pension, violated the state’s pension laws, which forbid allowing those who have reentered service as a firefighter from drawing a pension while working for a fire department.
The DOI determined it was a violation, prompting the district to again reclassify Cronholm’s position to “administrator,” and promote Cronholm’s former assistant fire chief to replace him as chief in March 2010, and earning a stamp of approval from the DOI.
In May 2010, some Lockport firefighters sued the pension board over this finding, saying they believed Cronholm should not be allowed to draw a pension while working as chief administrator.
The pension board later concluded Cronholm should be made to repay $17,693 he had been paid under his pension between the time he has named chief administrator and the assistant chief was promoted.
Cronholm then sued, and a Will County judge said the pension board had erred, ordering Cronholm’s pension to be restored.
On appeal, the majority of the Third District panel backed the finding of Judge John C. Anderson, particularly noting the law governing firefighters’ pensions was specifically changed by state lawmakers to classify firefighters as “those whose duty is to participate in the work of controlling and extinguishing fires at the location of any such fires.”
They said the “plain language” of the law meant the Lockport district’s pension board had made a mistake in determining “his position as chief administrator was essentially the same job as the fire chief,” and thus he “had reentered active service from the day after his retirement … until March 18, 2010, when a new fire chief was hired.”
The justices said the lawmakers’ debate concerning the change in the law illustrates their point.
“The transcripts from the debate in the legislature make it clear that the intent of the legislation was to limit participation in the pension system to only firefighters, not to the myriad of other personnel who, although integral to the success of the fire department, are not firefighters,” the majority wrote.
In his dissent, however, Schmidt said his colleagues in the majority had misread the case, particularly noting repeatedly that Cronholm “did the same job as chief administrator that he did as fire chief.”
“Chief administrator was an unsworn position but identical to that of fire chief, save the removal of on-site fire suppression from his list of duties,” Schmidt wrote. “Cronholm continued to carry his fire chief’s badge, occupy the same office he did as fire chief, and prepare and present monthly fire chief reports while serving as the District’s chief administrator.”
Schmidt noted Cronholm presented no evidence that he had ever actually fought fires while he served as chief.
“Municipalities are looking for ways to save money,” Schmidt wrote. “By striking one duty, which the former chief probably never performed while chief (he had the burden of proof and did not offer any evidence of this), the municipality kept its own chief at a reduced salary while transferring the obligation to pay some of Cronholm’s ‘salary’ to the pension fund.
“The end-around violates the spirit of the Act and will undoubtedly, if allowed, lead to further abuses of firefighters’ pension funds.”