Pension crisis spills over into suburbs

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Unless you’ve been living in the Deep Tunnel, you’ve probably heard the State of Illinois is facing a daunting public employee pension crisis, and Chicago — mainly its schools and municipal government — is tiptoeing around similar fiscal land mines that could blow up in the faces of retirees and taxpayers.

Unfortunately, there’s more pension peril you may not have heard much about, even if you’re following the story.

A recent Better Government Association investigation found the tentacles of the pension problem reaching far beyond Springfield and City Hall to suburban Cook County, where underfunded retirement accounts threaten numerous municipalities.

Dozens of pension plans run the risk of running dry, raising the specter of severely diminished retiree benefits and big local tax hikes to replenish the coffers.

Our investigation calculates the unfunded liability of 217 police and fire pension funds in suburban Cook County has swollen to $3.3 billion.

The sickest patient: The police pension plan in Stone Park, near O’Hare Airport, which had only seven cents for every dollar owed in long-term benefits.

That prompted the village to approve a $2 million bond issue to cover current pension costs, but it’s borrowed money and has to be paid back, on top of future pension obligations.

The countywide crisis has been building for years, caused, in part, by municipalities failing to adequately fund their pension programs on a regular basis.

One “fix” is a new state law that allows pension funds to intercept state dollars intended for municipalities that don’t adequately fund their retirement accounts, but that worries local officials who rely on state money for all sorts of things.

“Legislators understand it has to be done but it’s incredibly contentious and painful,” State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) told our investigators. “No one is chomping at the bit to do that.”

But numerous towns are paying the price for an understandable but reckless choice: Skipping annual contributions to their pension plans because it was more visible and politically beneficial to spend it on new parks, schools and infrastructure repairs voters can see.

South suburban Harvey is a good example. From 2010 to 2013, contributions for police and fire pensions were supposed to be $10.1 million.

State records show that Harvey paid in just $140 over that four-year span.

Our investigation also found end-of-career raises and bonuses that inflated pensions for retirees in some suburbs.

In Alsip, for example, two police officers retired days after receiving “longevity bonuses” of more than $20,000 each. The pay bumps could boost their pensions, and cost Alsip taxpayers, nearly $2 million, according to our actuarial analysis.

The crisis is prompting suburbs to consider dissolving their fire departments and merging with neighboring towns, or hiring private companies.

McCook, southwest of the city, has already done that by eliminating its fire department and privatizing the service in a move that will save roughly $600,000 annually, according to Mayor Jeff Tobolski.

One potential downside: Private companies don’t know the area as well as local fire departments.

That may be one reason there’s less talk about privatizing police work.

But back to the big picture: Illinois still hasn’t experienced the trauma or the practical dilemma of a pension fund or municipality filing for bankruptcy.

So, in the short term, local elected officials will have to work with their police and fire unions to get this problem under control, like political leaders are doing in other parts of the country.

Suburban Cook has 8,500 police, firefighters and paramedics who could collect pensions down the road.

They provide vital services 24/7, so the challenge is to find a middle ground that ensures their benefits without soaking taxpayers or rendering municipalities insolvent.

That’s easy to say but awfully hard to do, which presents another stiff challenge for our elected officials.

Are they up for it?

Time will tell.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association.

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