Residents Question Inflated Pay For Parks Administrators

Revelations of exorbitant salaries and bonuses paid to parks administrators in a wealthy Chicago suburb have got some city employees and residents up in arms.

The Park District of Highland Park is now hiring a consultant to do a comprehensive salary and benefit study after residents and even some city leaders expressed consternation over the fact that three of the district's administrators raked in more than $700,000 in bonuses from 2005 to 2008, a time of great growth for the suburb.

According to Highland Park News reports, the district awarded former director Ralph Volpe with a pension of $166,000, on top of his $138,000 salary to run the district in 2005. During those years of growth, in which the district built a large recreation center, the salary of finance director Kenneth Swan jumped from $124,908 to $218,372, and the salary of now retired facilities director David Harris swelled from $135,403 to $339,302. The employees were awarded additional individual bonuses of as much as $86,500, and Harris was even given a sport utility vehicle.

Although the park district is a separate taxing entity from the city, the rewards came at a time when some city employees, such as teachers, were dealing with a wage freeze.

"You could only imagine how frustrating and upsetting it is to hear that three people were given huge raises toward their pensions when we haven't had a raise in more than four years," longtime Highland Park teacher Marilyn Eisenstein told the News. "We were always told our pay was frozen because of budget problems. We were told every department had to watch their budgets, but now you see the commissioners voted for these huge bonuses and compensation packages."

Despite the salary study and some acknowledgment from mayor Michael D. Belsky that "even in good times the magnitude of the compensation awarded to the park district employees in question was not warranted," current park board president Lorry Werhane has remained somewhat defensive of the district's spending.

"Looking back, I guess we have to acknowledge that the citizens of Highland Park have a valid concern, and rightfully so, about our past compensation packages," Werhane told the News. "But at that point in time, we thought it was in the best interest of the community and the Park District to compensate well-performing individuals in that manner. They accomplished a lot in their final years of service."

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