Editorial: If voters knew doomsday was coming, would more vote?

SHARE Editorial: If voters knew doomsday was coming, would more vote?
SHARE Editorial: If voters knew doomsday was coming, would more vote?

On Wednesday, we called out the candidates running for mayor for failing to shout to the high heavens about the financial crisis that threatens to bring Chicago to its knees. No issue in this election matters more.

On Thursday, we called out the 39 candidates for alderman in theApril 7runoff elections for failing to make a stink about the crisis as well — and for selling snake-oil solutions that may have lulled voters into thinking there is no crisis at all.


Now we’re calling out you, the voters of Chicago, and ourselves. The voter turnout inlast week’s election was an appallingly low 34 percent, down from 42.5 percent four years ago. Clearly, too few Chicagoans appreciate the magnitude of our city’s financial problems, or, as likely, don’t buy the argument that two never-popular measures — messing a little with city pensions and raising taxes — are the only honest solution.

For this, we blame ourselves. Our job as an editorial page is to bring the city’s biggest challenges to your attention, analyze the proposed solutions and push the smartest course of action. For us, the lesson of that extremely low voter turnout is that we did not do a good enough job of sounding the alarm.

Allow us to sound it again, then.

Chicago’s four public employee retirement funds are underfunded by $20 billion. The city must figure out immediately how to pay a massive down payment on that debt — $1.1 billion for police and firefighters — due in 2016. And the city has no clue how it will meet a required payment of at least $50 million into the municipal workers and laborers funds.

Chicago’s debt is so large that some funds risk running out of money within a decade or two. And, on top of that, the city must contend with a projected $300 million city budget deficit. On Friday, the city’s bond rating was downgraded, again.

If drastic measures are not taken soon, this is how a great city becomes Detroit.

Every assessment by independent experts, including the respected Civic Federation, concludes that some restructuring of police and fire pensions will be necessary, just as pensions had to be reworked for municipal workers and laborers. That likely will mean police and fire employees have to pay a little more into their pensions, work a little longer and — as a result of change to the cost-of-living formula for increases — receive slightly lower benefits.

And even then, the experts say, a property tax hike will be necessary.

This is all bad news. It will be even worse news if the state Supreme Court later this year says it is unconstitutional to cut public employee pension benefits. But if we do nothing — if you, the voters, do not elect men and women prepared to take these hard steps — things will get only worse for Chicago. The City of Big Shoulders will be out on the street with a tin cup, unable to hire cops, plow streets, teach children or fill potholes.

And don’t believe some glib-talking candidate who tells you all would be well if Chicago just built a casino, taxed LaSalle Street traders or suburban commuters or shuffled around Tax Increment Financing district funds. Not one of those solutions, or all of them combined, holds up under scrutiny as the answer. Twenty billion dollars also does not grow on trees.

We know this seems slightly unnatural. We know nobody wants to go out on a cold winter day, or even a lovely spring day, to cast a vote for a candidate who is likely to push hard measures like pension reform and higher taxes.

But we believe more Chicagoans will do just that onApril 7once they fully appreciate the scope of the city’s financial crisis and the only honest solutions. We bite the bullet now or bite the dust later.

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