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Civic Federation says Emanuel’s final budget ignores ‘elephant in the room’

The Civic Federation says Mayor Rahm Emanuel's final budget ignores the "elephant in the room," namely the upcoming $1 billion spike in pension payments. | CNN screenshot

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s feel-good final budget is a “reasonable one-year financial plan” that keeps the city’s hand out of taxpayers’ pockets but ignores “an enormous elephant in the room,” the Civic Federation warned Wednesday.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall identified the “elephant” as the $1 billion spike in pension payments that will confront the next mayor and City Council. It will nearly double the city’s contribution to four city employee pension funds over the next five years.

Msall also cited other concerns adding to the weight of that elephant. They include Chicago’s “high and growing” debt, projected increases in the city’s corporate budget shortfall in 2020 and beyond, and the $1.3 billion in debt Chicago plans to issue to re-fund existing general obligation bonds through a structure known as “Sales Tax Securitization.”

In an analysis released Wednesday before his testimony at the only public hearing on the budget, Msall noted that the general obligation bonds the city plans to refinance would have matured “no later than 2044.” But the new sales tax plan includes $1 billion in debt maturing “between 2044 and 2053.”

That could hamstring the city’s ability to issue debt for capital projects in the 2040’s and 2050’s, Msall warned.

“The Civic Federation is concerned that the city continues to rely on transactions that extend the maturity of debt to achieve short-term budgetary relief,” the analysis said.

Msall urged the city to develop a long-term financial plan for operations and pensions, hammer out “sustainable collective bargaining agreements” and re-evaluate the use of tax-increment-financing (TIF) districts.


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“This budget continues to incorporate many of the prudent financial practices prioritized by Mayor Emanuel and the City Council in recent years,” Msall was quoted as saying in a news release.

“However, there remains an enormous elephant in the room — a projected doubling in required pension contributions over the next five years — that the next administration and City Council must tackle.”

Emanuel’s $10.6 billion budget for 2019 holds the line on taxes, fines and fees not previously approved and still invests heavily in police reform, crime fighting, housekeeping services and mentoring and summer jobs for at-risk youth.

The Civic Federation’s concerns mirror the red flags raised by Standard & Poor’s, a Wall Street rating agency.

Days after Emanuel delivered his final budget address, Standard & Poor’s talked about the problems Emanuel chose to ignore in his eighth and final budget.

They include the $1 billion spike in pension payments; police and fire contracts yet to be negotiated that will undoubtedly include tens of millions of dollars in retroactive pay increases to cover raises dating back to June 30, 2017 and rising debt service costs.

“The city has yet to identify funding sources for a large increase in police and fire pension contributions in 2020 and we anticipate that new police and fire labor contracts will grow wage expenses beyond baseline assumptions presented in the city’s annual financial analysis,” the rating agency wrote.

“We still view structural solutions to close the fiscal 2020 gap as feasible. But a change in political will (particularly uncertain in light of pending administration changes) and further increases to the budget gap, including escalation of pension costs, could change our view.”

Although an avalanche of tax increases and spending cuts “set up fiscal 2019 to be an easier budget,” the next three years will “test the city’s willingness and ability to manage its budget in a sustainable manner,” the rating agency said.

After a five-year ramp up to actuarial funding, beleaguered Chicago taxpayers will be on the hook to keep all four city employee pension funds on the road to 90 percent funding over the next 40 years.

The lengthy amortization period “amounts to a form of contribution deferral that adds substantial long-term risk,” Standard & Poor’s wrote.

“The city will be locked into negative amortization for several decades, meaning that the unfunded liability will continue to grow even as contributions increase and the plans will remain vulnerable to adverse experience and at risk of insolvency in a recession or market downturn,” the rating agency said.