Long-awaited hearing in Lockport Township FPD feud
BY JANET LUNDQUIST firstname.lastname@example.org October 30, 2013 9:36PM
Updated: December 2, 2013 12:29PM
A years-long legal battle over pension payments to a former fire chief came to a head Wednesday as the fire pension board in Lockport Township held a hearing on whether he should have drawn simultaneously a pension and full-time salary from the fire district.
The hearing resulted from an Illinois Appellate Court decision that the pension board must decide whether former chief Robert Cronholm re-entered active service with the township fire protection district after he retired in October 2009.
A group of Lockport firefighters filed a complaint in May 2010 in Will County Circuit Court, arguing that Cronholm was double-dipping — drawing a six-figure salary as the district’s administrator along with a pension.
The firefighters want to force the board to recoup the pension money paid to Cronholm in the five months that he was administrator (November 2009 to March 2010) and no one was chief. But his lawyers and fire district officials say they don’t believe the pension board has the authority to order Cronholm to give the money back.
The attorney for the firefighters said that, if the pension board finds Cronholm was in active service while getting pension payments, the firefighters can take legal action to try to restore the money to the pension fund. Cronholm is no longer with the fire district, having resigned as administrator in July.
Cronholm retired as chief, effective Oct. 31, 2009, and began collecting his pension the next day — the same day he began as the fire district’s chief administrator with a $120,000 salary, $700 per month in a vehicle allowance and an expense allowance of $100 per month.
Cronholm’s monthly pension of $3,863 from the Lockport Township Fire Protection District was on top of a pension from the Oak Brook Fire Department, where he worked for 20 years.
Cronholm’s attorney, Thomas Radja Jr., told pension board members Wednesday that Cronholm did not re-enter active service at the district as administrator because he did not respond to emergency calls or fight fires.
Fire Chief David Skoryi, who has held the post since March 2010, told the board that, in discussions with Cronholm before his retirement, they determined that their jobs would mostly remain the same once Skoryi was promoted to chief, but Cronholm would no longer go on emergency calls.
The pension board did not make a decision Wednesday, continuing the hearing to Jan. 10.
At the time of his retirement in 2009, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund rejected Cronholm’s enrollment, saying he essentially was doing the same job he was doing before, serving as chief. The state insurance department agreed.
Nevertheless, the pension board continued its payments to Cronholm. In January 2010, the fire district restructured and changed Cronholm’s duties, and the board promoted Skoryi to chief.
In light of the changes, the Illinois Department of Insurance found that Cronholm’s duties no longer amounted to re-entering active service. In April 2010, the pension board voted to accept the state’s conclusion.
That sent the group of firefighters to court, but a Will County judge dismissed their complaint in January 2012 because of procedural errors. They appealed, and the appellate court overruled the judge in April, ordering the pension board to hold a formal hearing before deciding whether Cronholm received pension pay improperly during that five-month period.