Pension overhaul shouldn’t slash retirement income: city unions

Written By BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter Posted: 03/19/2014, 06:24am
Array Veteran Chicago Public Schools teacher Patricia Boughton makes the case against pension givebacks at a Monday news conference: "I feel that we’ve been robbed — that someone is stealing from us.” | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

A coalition of government unions on Monday trotted out seven everyday city employees and retirees to make its case against pension reforms that would sharply reduce the retirement income of employees who are not eligible for Social Security.

During a news conference in Chicago, a police officer, a firefighter, a parking enforcement aide, a teacher, a pair of nurses and an audio-visual technician all carried the same message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his Springfield allies.

They kept their end of the bargain by contributing 9 percent of their paychecks into a retirement system that amounts to their only safety net.

They should not be “punished” because politicians skipped or shorted their mandatory contributions.

“I’m a widow. . . . I don’t have a husband to help me. When the mayor and politicians say, `We’re going to cut pensions,’ they are really affecting people like myself in a dramatic way,” 20-year veteran Chicago teacher Patricia Boughton told reporters during the new conference at Teamster City, 300 S. Ashland.

“I feel that we’ve been robbed — that someone is stealing from us. You give me money to put away for you and I spend it on something else. Then, when you come to me later on and say, `Can I get my money back?’ I tell you, `I don’t have it.’ How would you feel? That’s really what’s happening to us.”

Veteran firefighter Tom Ruane said he’s planning to retire at the end of this year after a 34-year career that left him “physically beat up.”

His injuries include a reconstructed ACL, 13 facial stitches after being punched by a felon on parole and a new hip stemming from injuries suffered when he was trapped in an attic during a South Side fire.

“If they’re gonna break an employment contract, how `bout we start with the Skyway or the parking meters. . . . That’s where the big money is,” Ruane said.

Louise Bates-Spencer retired in 1998 after 16 years as an audio-visual technician for the city’s Department of Public Health.

“Last year, my pension was less then $18,000. This year, the monthly amount I receive is even less because Mayor Rahm Emanuel raised the amount retirees like me must pay for health insurance coverage. Out of the $18,000, my husband and I must pay our health insurance, prescription drugs, mortgage, property taxes, homeowners insurance, food, utilities, lawn care,” said Bates-Spencer, 81.

“It is extremely difficult on the little I get now. To take a pay cut year after year is unfathomable. To all of the politicians hollering about our pensions, I say to them, `Let’s get real.’ . . . It’s like throwing seniors to the wolves.”

When the employees described as the “heart and soul of Chicago” were done telling their side of the story, Chicago Teachers Union Vice-President Jesse Sharkey told his.

He argued that union leaders are prepared to begin talking with the mayor about ways to guarantee pension security. But, the debate must begin and end with new revenue.

That may include everything from a city income tax, a graduated state income tax or a return to a dedicated property tax level to a financial transaction tax, closing corporate loopholes or extending the state sales tax to a host of services not now covered.

Emanuel has made the opposite argument. He has argued that, if the discussion begins with new revenue, pension reform will never come.

Emanuel released one of his patented emailed statements in response to the coalition’s demands for tax increases before concessions.

In it, the mayor called the city’s $20 billion pension crisis “the biggest financial threat our city and school system have ever seen.” A solution will require a “balanced approach” that provides a “secure retirement” for city employees and retirees without putting undue pressure on “taxpayers and homeowners in every neighborhood who struggle to make ends meet,” Emanuel said.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that the Chicago Teachers Union had forged a coalition with other public sector unions to “aggressively defend” against a “pension heist” at Emanuel’s behest.

Next year, state law requires the city to make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 31.3 and 24.4 percent of their respective liabilities.

That will require a painful mix of new revenues and employees concessions that only the Illinois Legislature can mandate.

Emanuel wants the General Assembly to impose annual property tax increases on Chicago homeowners and businesses, but put off the balloon payment to shore up police and fire pensions until 2023 to make the bitter pill easier to swallow.

He wants an Illinois General Assembly that has already solved the Chicago Park District’s pension problems to use that plan as a road map for other city unions. And he wants lawmakers to impose the same pension reforms on Chicago teachers that they did on teachers in the suburbs and Downstate.


Twitter: @fspielman

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