Rock Cut State Park site superintendent Dan Riggs holds a global positioning system unit June 12, 2008, at the trail head of Willow Creek Nature Trail. Photo by Amy J. Van Horn/Rockford Register Star
Rock Cut’s chief to retire early over Illinois’ pension woes
Rockford Register Star
LOVES PARK — A recent wave of retirements caused by uncertainty with the state pension system will stretch Illinois Department of Natural Resources staff even thinner.
Locally, it will leave Rock Cut State Park without its leader.
About 80 of the department’s 1,100 employees filed their intent to retire this month, including several state park superintendents, biologists, engineers and other administrators. The list of retirees is growing and the total number could not be confirmed, spokesman Chris McCloud said.
The department doesn’t have any definite plans to replace the outgoing employees, who include Dan Riggs, Rock Cut’s site superintendent since 1999.
Director Marc Miller said the department is used to making do with fewer resources and will do so again. The staff has dropped 58 percent — about 1,500 people — in the past 10 years, according to figures from McCloud.
“We certainly are used to dealing with uncertain variables,” Miller said. “We have been doing a great with limited resources, and we will figure out a way to keep everything moving.”
The department is still getting a handle on how many employees it will lose to retirement and how to make up for the loss.
“We’re looking at what parks absolutely have to have staff in order to operate,” McCloud said. “You don’t necessarily have to have full-time staff at every single one of our 324 sites. There are certain sites that don’t and have not had staff traditionally, good budget or not.”
Sites that are temporarily left without a superintendent, like Rock Cut, will look for direction from leaders of the department’s land division.
Uncertainty with the state’s pension system led Riggs and several other site superintendents to retire. The department could not confirm the total number of site superintendents to retire.
Riggs had planned to retire at year’s end, but legislators’ recent pension talks led him to retire seven months early to ensure that he’d retire under the pension plan he’s paid into for the past 33 years with the department.
Rock Cut State Park’s staff has been cut in half, down to seven employees — an assistant superintendent, five site technicians and an office coordinator — since Riggs started in 1999.
“We’re open 365 days a year and usually two shifts. When you spread that many people over that much, something has to give,” Riggs said. “So far, we’ve been able to stretch out the maintenance and try to be more efficient with that, but it’s getting to be a real struggle just to manage the park day to day.”
Many DNR properties have struggled to keep up with maintenance. The department has about $750 million worth of backlogged maintenance needs, McCloud said.
Of his tenure as site superintendent, Riggs takes pride in the partnerships Rock Cut made with park users to help expand the mountain bike, equestrian and hiking trails.
“The trail system has come a long way with help from groups like the Rock Cut Trail Crew and all the saddle clubs. That would probably be something I’d like to have as a legacy.”
Early retirements could leave the department responsible to pay out unused vacation time and other retirement costs, which could strain the budget. It was cut by 13.5 percent — nearly $34 million — and a pair of bills that would have raised money for park improvements and operations didn’t make it out of Springfield this session.
A bill that would have allowed state parks to charge annual vehicle admission and daily entrance fees passed the House 81-29 in March, then stalled in the Senate.
A separate bill, which would raise about 20 fees to help pay for department operations and park improvements, also failed to get out of the General Assembly. The fees would raise $32 million annually; $22 million would come from a $2 increase in license plate fees, which would increase the $99 cost of license plates for cars to $101.
The bill passed the House 61-56 on May 31, the last scheduled day of the session. It failed to pass the Senate because the vote took place after midnight. It got 33 “yes” votes, normally enough to pass, but because the Senate didn’t act until after midnight, it needed 36 votes.
“I wouldn’t be supportive of any new fees until we fix that pension issue,” said Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Belvidere, who voted against the bill. “When we had to put in almost a billion dollars in extra funding this year and we’re looking at probably another billion dollars toward pensions next year, it’s tightening every other area of the budget.”
Nathan Hemmer (left), 15, of Belvidere and his sister, Laurel, 17, paddle out Wednesday, June 6, 2012, in Pierce Lake at Rock Cut State Park in Loves Park. They are training for a one-week sea kayaking trip, which starts June 17, on Lake Superior, where they will go between the Apostle Islands. Photo by Max Gersh/Rockford Register Star