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Illinois Senate passes firefighter pension bill over mayor’s strenuous objections

City Hall says the bill would saddle beleaguered Chicago taxpayers with $18 million in additional costs the first year, $30 million every year after that and $850 million by 2055.

Chicago firefighter on the scene of house fire in Belmont Cragin in January 2019.
Retirement benefits for Chicago firefighters would increase under a bill that passed the Illinois Senate on Monday.
Sun-Times file photo

With the spotlight focused elsewhere, such as the Mike Madigan saga and the Black Caucus push for criminal justice reform, the Illinois Senate voted Monday to raise retirement benefits for 2,200 Chicago firefighters in a way that would saddle beleaguered city taxpayers with $850 million in added costs by 2055.

The bill already had passed the Illinois House and now awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature or veto.

It was introduced by Sen. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, when Martwick was a state representative. Martwick, a political nemesis of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, has since been appointed to the Illinois Senate to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of state Sen. John Mulroe.

Martwick’s bill removes the “birth date restriction” that prohibits roughly 2,200 active and retired firefighters born after Jan. 1, 1966 from receiving a simple, 3% annual cost of living increase. Instead, they get half that amount, 1.5% — and it is not compounded.

“Mayor Lightfoot believes strongly that we must work toward a comprehensive pension solution which keeps the promises made to retirees and which sets pension funds across the state on a path to solvency,” the mayor’s office said in a statement issued after the vote.

Passing this bill, “effectively under the cover of darkness in a rushed lame duck session, accomplishes neither of these important objectives, but does pass on a massive, unfunded mandate to the taxpayers of Chicago at a time when there are no extra funds to cover this new obligation,” the statement continued. It called the bill “irresponsible” and said it would leave taxpayers “on the hook” for $18 million to $30 million per year, or over $850 million by 2055.

“It is these very kinds of actions that further erode confidence in government.”

CFD Local 2 President Jim Tracy could not be reached for comment.

In late February, Martwick argued the “birth date restriction” has already been moved five times as a way of masking the true cost to a firefighters pension fund with roughly 25% of assets to meet its future liabilities.

“Remember, they have traditionally given that 3% simple COLA [Cost-of-living adjustment] to these firefighters. They’re going to get that. This just writes it into law. It’s really not adding cost. It’s making that cost transparent,” Martwick said then.

“If we don’t change the provision and we give them the more generous, 3% simple COLA, then payment on the back end will be enormous. There’s no doubt that would make the mathematical calculation of their payment go up. But what it will do is prevent us from kicking the can and making a huge disaster down the road. It’s making the law comply with what the actual practice is.”

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall urged Gov. J.B. Pritzker to veto the bill, calling it “unhinged from the economic reality facing Chicago property taxpayers and the $850 million cost” to the firefighters’ pension fund.

“The only place it can come from because of the Legislature not providing any other resources to pay for this would be from property taxpayers. And the city is already increasing property taxes as recently as this year to pay for their pensions,” Msall said.

“They’re now on the sixth year of their actuarial, 40-year plan. So you can directly follow this bill’s cost to property taxpayers.”

The Senate vote was 37 to 14, with six members not voting and one voting “present.”

Rob Tebbens, the now former political director for Local 2, has referred to the legislation as a “transparency bill” ending the city’s longstanding practice of “fooling themselves” by “masking” the true cost of firefighter pensions.

“This is potentially an age discrimination issue because you’re basing the benefit off of an individual’s age and not their years of service. Based on their age, they’re gonna get a benefit that is less than a Tier 2 benefit” for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011, Tebbens told the Sun-Times in February.

“By law, that’s something they could poussibly take to court and litigate. Doing it legislatively could save the city money in the long run. They wouldn’t have to litigate this issue.”

Tebbens has argued a Chicago casino easily could generate $30 million a year more.

“They need to throw their cards on the table, show the true liability of this benefit and not mask it with this birthday rule and let the taxpayers know what the true liability is. This is not a benefit enhancement. This is just a reconciling of benefits to the members of my department,” Tebbens has said.

During the mayoral campaign, Martwick and Lightfoot famously got into a shouting match at a campaign news conference Lightfoot called to denounce Martwick-sponsored legislation that would change the Cook County assessor post from an elected to an appointed position.

Martwick had endorsed County Board President Toni Preckwinkle over Lightfoot in the mayoral race. Martwick also earned the mayor’s ire for championing an elected school board bill that would divide the city into 20 districts.