CAHOKIA – Pension benefits for former Cahokia police chief Rick Watson, now St. Clair County sheriff, were boosted by 33 percent in his last 35 days as chief, according to records of the trustees and the state insurance commission.
Police in Illinois collect benefits according to salary on the last day, unlike most state employees whose benefits depend on salaries across years worked.
An annual statement of Cahokia’s police pension trustees for the fiscal year ending April 30, 2011, showed Watson received $95,163.60 in salary.
An annual statement from the police pension for the next year reported his retirement and showed his last salary at $95,163.60. But, under the heading of “salary used,” it showed $127,462.40.
The Illinois Department of Insurance, which regulates state pensions including local police and fire systems, originally calculated Watson’s pension to be based on his salary of $95,163.60.
Annual reports of the Cahokia Police Pension Fund indicate that Watson contributed $137,167.01 into the fund over his career in Cahokia. By the end of the second year of his retirement in 2012, he had received more than he put into it.
The bolstering of Watson’s $95,163.60 salary to $127,462.40 meant that his pension would match his last salary in the spring of 2011, with a raise of $433.20.
The Department of Insurance has been contacted for comment, but has not responded to two phone calls and an email inquiry that was requested by the office.
Records from the Department show annual growth calculations at three percent, indicating Watson’s benefit is $117,502.04 this year and will be $121,110.20 next year.
As Sheriff, Watson also earns $98,776 in salary. His pension plus current salary equals $216,278. Since his retirement in 2011, Watson has earned close to $200,000 more than he would have if his pension had been based on his original “last salary.”
When asked about the sharp salary increase before he retired from Cahokia, Watson said the village board approved a contract providing for the increase.
“I don’t have anything to do with that,” Watson said. “It’s in the contract with the entire village board.
“I’m not the only one in it. It was for lieutenants and above…I’m not going to knowingly do anything wrong. That’s the way I led my life.”
The village of Cahokia hired Watson in 1979.
In 2010, as police chief and pension trustee, he completed eight hours of training through a state pension fund association.
In March 2011, he completed a regional pension outreach seminar at Lewis and Clark Community College in Edwardsville.
Payroll records from the village show that on March 28, 2011, someone drew a slash through Watson’s regular wages of $3,965.15 on a data entry worksheet. The same hand wrote $5,108.90 above the slash, a gain of 28 percent.
Over the course of the year, with 24 deposits, that would equal $122,613.60.
On April 11, 2011, Watson notified the other trustees that he would retire on May 1.
“I have been with the department 32 years and feel the time is right,” Watson wrote. “I would like my benefits to take effect immediately.”
In his next public service career, Watson succeeded longtime Sheriff Mearl Justus, who resigned after 30 years in December 2012 due to health reasons. Watson, as undersheriff, was then automatically elevated to sheriff per state law. He was elected in 2014, and faces re-election on the Democratic ticket this November.
Justus (who had previously worked as Cahokia police chief) and Watson served as elected trustees of the Cahokia police pension system at the same time, and their terms ended April 30, 2011.
The Cahokia Police Pension accepted Watson’s application for benefits on April 13, 2011, but he abstained from a vote.
A payroll data entry worksheet on that date showed a slash and the same higher wage.
On April 18, 2011, Watson sent a retirement letter to mayor Frank Bergman.
On his last day, the trustees boosted his salary by another four percent.
His opponent in the fall election, retired Fairview Heights police chief, Republican Nick Gailius, obtained Watson’s retirement records through freedom of information requests.
Gailius wrote in a summary that, “Had he received a pension on his final rate of $95,163.60, his pension would have initially been $71,732.70.”
According to a table Gailius prepared, Watson has gained more than $2,000 a month from the late raises.
It shows that from retirement to July 31 of this year, a span of 87 months, Watson gained $194,617.37 more due to his base salary spiking from $95,163 to $127,462.40.
“The board had to have blindly voted for Watson’s pension without the requisite facts of the requested pension set out before them,” Gailius wrote.
“Although he did abstain from voting, it did not relieve him from a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the figures used to calculate his pension were correct.”
“It should be noted that, at the time of Watson’s retirement, the incumbent mayor, Frank Bergman, had lost reelection and was replaced as mayor at the first village board meeting in May 2011.”
Bergman currently leads the county’s human resource department.
Watson said Gailius is like a “peeping Tom.”
“I’m about tired of this, to tell you the truth,” Watson said.
“What has he said that he can do better than me as sheriff?”
Watson said that for pension boards, “Everything is getting so technical that you have to hire an attorney.”
“There are so many laws and rules, and people serve on these boards for nothing,” he said.
He said trustees must take 32 hours of training and 16 more hours every year.
“You’re not going to be able to get people to serve on them anymore,” he said.
He said attorneys advised the village on the contract with police managers.
“We were one of a handful of management people with a contract written out and signed by the village board,” he said.