In study of nation’s 75 largest cities, Chicago ranks next to last in fiscal health

Based on 2018 audited financial statements, Truth in Accounting gives Chicago an “F” with a debt burden of $34.4 billion; that’s $37,100 per taxpayer. New York ranked last, with $186.7 billion, or $63,100 per taxpayer.

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Chicago City Hall, with the Board of Trade building in the background.

A nonprofit created to empower and educate local taxpayers has bad news for Chicago. Out of the nation’s 75 largest cities, Chicago ranks second-to-last, ahead of only one city: New York.

Sun-Times file

Moody’s Investors has already ranked Chicago and Detroit as the U.S. cities least prepared to weather the storm of another recession because of “extraordinarily high” fixed costs and crushing pension obligations.

Now, a nonprofit created to empower and educate local taxpayers has more bad news for Chicago: Of the nation’s 75 largest cities, Chicago’s fiscal health ranks next to last, ahead of only New York.

After analyzing 2018 audited financial statements, Truth in Accounting gave Chicago an “F,” with a debt burden of $34.4 billion; that’s $37,100 for every taxpayer.

Of $39.8 billion in retirement benefits promised, Chicago has $30.1 billion in unfunded pension benefits and $686 million in unfunded retiree health care benefits.  

“They should have been funded as the employees got them and as the state approved them. Instead, elected officials chose to use that money for other government services or benefits or didn’t raise taxes,” said Sheila Weinberg, Truth in Accounting’s founder and CEO.

“Future taxpayers are gonna be stuck with this bill. … They’re gonna have to pay additional taxes. They’re not gonna receive any government services or benefits for that unless retirement benefits can be cut — which the state supreme court has said [is] unlikely — or other cuts can be made.”

Budget and Management spokesperson Kristen Cabanban said Truth in Accounting’s “flawed analysis doesn’t add up.”

It ignores the “power of Chicago’s economy and potential for growth” and “fails to acknowledge” that, unlike other major cities, Chicago has taken “major steps to address its pension liabilities,” she said.

“While Chicago has seen our fair share of financial challenges, we have not wavered in our ability to live up to a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall without imposing a significant property tax increase, without experiencing a credit downgrade,” Cabanban wrote in an emailed statement.

“In fact, top rating agencies and independent financial stakeholders have confirmed consistently that Chicago is moving in the right direction — including with the recent sale of $1.5 billion in city bonds at the smallest credit spreads in a decade, resulting in over $310 million in additional savings for future budget balancing.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s own three-year financial analysis forecasts a “worst case” shortfall of $1.74 billion in 2022 if the economy takes a nose-dive. Even in the best-case scenario, with a rosy economy, the office forecast a $799 million shortfall.

Two other cities joined New York and Chicago in receiving a failing grade: Philadelphia and Honolulu.

New York ranked dead last with a debt burden of $186.7 billion or $63,100 for every Big Apple taxpayer.

Of that money, $51 billion comes from unfunded pension liabilities and $106.1 billion stems from retiree health care.

Compared to New York, Chicago has a relatively low unfunded liability for retiree health care.

That stems from former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial decision to phase out and ultimately abolish the city’s $108 million-a-year subsidy for retiree health care.

“Mayors there did not do what Rahm Emanuel did. They didn’t control those costs at all. They just continued to promise those benefits without adequately funding them,” Weinberg said.

Emanuel spent the first of his two terms trying to negotiate pension reforms that were ultimately overturned. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld a pension protection clause that says those benefits “shall not be impaired or diminished.”

That triggered a downward spiral that saw Moody’s Investors drop Chicago’s bond rating to junk status. Moody’s now stands alone in rating Chicago bonds as junk — a Ba1 rating — with a stable outlook on the city’s general obligation debt.

Lightfoot’s $11.6 billion budget was precariously balanced with one-time revenues, including: a $300 million tax increment financing surplus, the largest in Chicago history; a $1.5 billion refinancing, with all $210 million in savings claimed up-front; and a $93 million clawback from the Chicago Public Schools for pension and security costs the city used to pay for.

Recent refinancing triggered $310 million savings, $100 million more than planned. The mayor is also counting on $163 million from raising ambulance fees paid by private insurers and getting federal approval for reimbursements administered by the state for ambulance transports for low-income patients on Medicaid.

That hasn’t happened yet. Lightfoot remains “very confident” the feds will green-light the ambulance plan, despite her repeated attacks on President Donald Trump.

Even after enduring an avalanche of tax increases, Chicago taxpayers can look forward to more of the same.

They’re on the hook to keep all four city employee pension funds on the road to 90 percent funding. By 2023, the city’s contribution to all four funds will nearly double, to $2.1 billion.

Lightfoot avoided a massive property tax increase, even after coming up empty in Springfield in her requests for a casino gambling fix and a graduated real estate transfer tax. But all bets are off if she strikes out again during the spring session.

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