Chicago Alderman Salaries, Second Jobs, and Expense Funds Revealed
How Much Are Chicago Alderman Paid?
Chicago aldermen start at $115,560 and get annual cost-of-living raises. Those who accept the bump will earn up to $142,772 next year.
Besides their legislative duties, they chair 17 committees broken down by policy and vote on the city budget and mayor’s appointees. But many also hold second jobs, a practice that’s been criticized since Ald. Ed Burke was indicted on corruption charges.
In addition to their salary, City Alderman receive additional compensation for serving on specialized committees. As a result, the career prospects of an alderman are diverse and promising. They can advance to higher political offices, pursue positions as legislative assistants or transition into private sector jobs like public relations or nonprofit management.
The highest-earning aldermen will make $142,772 starting next year, nearly double Chicago’s median household income. But 17 of 50 alderpersons opted to reject a 9.6% pay raise that is tied to inflation.
WBEZ obtained financial disclosure forms filed by City Council members through a public records request. According to the forms, at least 20% of the aldermen hold a second job outside of their City Hall duties.
For example, Dan Burke makes $115,992 a year as the partner of the Klafter & Burke law firm. His two-page financial disclosure statement cites dozens of clients to whom he’s provided legal services over the years.
A Chicago alderman’s pay varies, depending on whether they’ve accepted annual inflation-based raises. This year’s bump will boost the top salary to $142,772. Alderpeople also get a $97,000 expense allowance, which can be used to rent ward offices, lease vehicles and pay utility bills.
A dozen alderpeople have second jobs, including lawyers, real estate agents and professors. Tom Tunney, who’s mulling a run for mayor, owns Ann Sather Restaurants.
Ray Lopez, who’s running for mayor in the Southwest Side’s 15th ward, said he’ll turn down this year’s inflation-based increase. He calls the raise “obscene,” particularly as constituents grapple with the nation’s highest inflation rate in decades. “Our constituents don’t get a 10% raise,” Lopez says. “They get a higher cost of living.” He’s proposing legislation to cap alderperson salaries. Currently, the maximum is $120,000 a year. The law would hold it steady for four years, then be capped at 3 percent inflation. After federal and state taxes, an alderman’s take-home pay is roughly $32,743. *
Since 2006, Chicago City Council members have been automatically given annual raises tied to inflation — unless they choose not to accept them. Fourteen of the city’s 50 aldermen did not accept this year’s 5.5% pay increase.
Each alderman is also allowed a taxable expense account, which can be used for things such as renting office space, buying cars and paying utility bills. But those funds are subject to strict rules aimed at preventing abuses, such as the kind of “pay-to-play” schemes that tainted the accounts in the 1980s and 1990s.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 budget includes $100,000 sweeteners for each of the 50 aldermen, which they can spend in their wards however they see fit. The Tribune has been analyzing records of some existing spending, and it is clear that many aldermen have been using their allowances to fund projects that appear to be intended to curry favor with the mayor. For example, one alderman spent $16,000 on a public relations firm that handles media calls and his ward newsletter.
One of the most under-the-radar parts of aldermanic clout is their ability to dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars for patronage jobs, operating expenses and other council authorized projects. This money isn’t part of their annual salaries and isn’t counted when calculating their pay.
But a Tribune/WGN-TV analysis of pension fund documents shows that many aldermen are able to buy their way up to maximum benefits even if they serve fewer than 20 years. For example, former alderman Thomas Allen was able to buy up 17 more years of service at a cost significantly lower than his current annual city taxpayer-funded pension payment of more than $142,000.
The powerful chairman of the council’s Zoning Committee, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), is among the 15 who voted against the inflation-linked raise. He says he believes aldermen deserve to earn their maximum pension faster because they work in a burnout job that requires them to be reelected every four years.