Though he lost the race for Chicago mayor, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia plans to stay on as a Cook County commissioner, with no signs of retiring from public service.
But if and when he does leave, he’ll have retirement benefits waiting: At least $50,000 a year, in total, from three public-sector pension funds, records indicate.
Turns out those payouts would have been about $15,000 less if not for a perk that allowed Garcia, who turns 59 on Sunday, to purchase pension credits in 2012 covering his time in the City Council two decades earlier.
Garcia’s efforts to maximize his payouts by contributing toward his city pension well after working for city government are totally legal.
But it’s the kind of benefit not afforded to all current and former government employees or by all public-sector pension plans – underscoring the generosity of some retirement plans when it comes to elected officials.
Here’s how things worked in Garcia’s instance: He didn’t pay into the city’s main pension plan – the Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund, or MEABF – while a Chicago alderman in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most city employees are automatically enrolled in MEABF and contribute roughly 8.5 percent of their paycheck toward their retirement, while city government also contributes a share. (In fact, before becoming an alderman, Garcia worked for the Chicago water department for several years and contributed to MEABF during that period.)
Aldermen, however, aren’t automatically enrolled. They have to opt in, which Garcia didn’t do.
But because of the way the rules are structured, Garcia didn’t lose his ability to collect a city pension based on his City Council service, which ended in 1993. He was allowed to make pension contributions retroactively, and did so in 2012, cutting a check for roughly $38,000 to MEABF, according to records and interviews.
That gave Garcia five and a half years in pension credits, covering his time in the City Council and boosting his expected pension payouts by more than $15,000 a year, for starters.
Garcia won his aldermanic seat in 1986 and served in the City Council until winning a state Senate seat in 1992. He stayed in the General Assembly until losing re-election in 1998. He resurfaced in 2010 when he was elected to the County Board, where his current salary is $85,000 a year.
Because of agreements between city, county and state pension funds, Garcia is allowed to group together his years in city, county and state governments to garner a higher pension payout.
Those pension funds calculate that if Garcia had stepped down after his first term as a county commissioner at the end of 2014 and began taking his pensions at age 60, his total annual annuity would be $50,712 initially, likely rising each year thereafter, unless pension reforms are enacted that would restrict benefits for retirees.
Had Garcia not purchased those five and a half years, the payouts would have started at $35,028, according to pension records obtained by the Better Government Association.
“In 2012, I was advised of Cook County pension rules and benefits, and learned from staff at the County’s pension board that I could apply my aldermanic service towards my public pension benefit – if I paid for the pension costs of those 5.5 years of service,” Garcia told the BGA in an email. He went on to say, “As a result of pension reform in Springfield in the early 1990s, municipal employees who had not participated in a pension were given the option to pay into the pension fund for the time they had served. I was made aware of this in 2012, and did so.”
Not all public pension systems let elected officials buy back as much time or with such ease as MEABF. Suburban and Downstate elected officials in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, or IMRF, can buy up to 50 months of previous service time. The stipulation is the individual still has to be employed by an IMRF-covered agency or a government body that has a pension plan with reciprocity. If an individual doesn’t meet that criteria the window closes, according to IMRF Executive Director Louis Kosiba.
The state Supreme Court is in the process of deciding whether a pension reform law that would lessen benefits for members of the General Assembly Retirement System, to which Garcia belongs, is constitutional. A challenge to a separate bill seeking to reform MEABF is also winding its way through the courts.
Even with changes to those retirement systems, it’s unclear if and how Garcia’s payouts would be impacted.
The proposed reforms are designed to improve the financial health of the pension funds, and lessen the burden on taxpayers.
Cook County, MEABF and the General Assembly Retirement System have about 61 percent, 37 percent, and 16 percent respectively of the assets needed to cover expected pension payments for retirees.
Meanwhile, Garcia’s mayoral opponent, Rahm Emanuel, has said he won’t take a city pension. Emanuel is already a millionaire, having made a killing during a short stint in the investment banking industry.
The BGA previously estimated that Emanuel’s federal pension – for his time as a congressman and chief of staff to President Barack Obama – will amount to at least $18,000 a year. The exact figure is unknown because the federal government does not release such information.
Likewise, local pension funds wouldn’t compute what Garcia’s pension payouts might look like had he won last Tuesday’s mayoral runoff and started collecting the $216,000 mayoral salary.
This column was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick Rehkamp. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (312) 386-9201. Rehkamp’s Twitter handle is@patrickrehkamp.