County pension reform headed to Springfield

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Officials are putting the finishing touches on a Cook County worker pension reform bill that is soon expected to emerge in Springfield, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

The bill will cut retiree benefits and require workers to pay more toward their pension funds. But it will not address an estimated $144 million in new annual revenue that’s needed to fully fund the pension accounts in 20 years, a source with knowledge of plan said Tuesday.

That decision would be made by the Cook County Board following November’s gubernatorial election, officials with knowledge of the plan said.

But the money will likely be raised through a tax hike — either a sales tax hike, a property tax hike, or a combination of the two — in Cook County, the source said.

That’s because county officials do not believe they can cut enough from the budget to cover the cost, the source said.

On Tuesday, the office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declined to comment on specifics of the plan.

But an aide to Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, confirmed that his top lawyer, Eric Madiar, was vetting the legislation. 

“It’s very, very early in the drafting process,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said. “It’s not on our radar for anything that happens this week.”

While the question of revenue will not be addressed by the Legislature, the bill would require all employees hired before 2010 to pay 10.5 percent of their salaries into their retirement, the source said.

That’s a 2-percent hike for most county employees, who currently pay 8.5 percent of their salary into the fund. The increase for sheriff’s office employees would be smaller because they already pay 9 percent.

Future retirees would have to wait two years after retirement to get a cost-of-living increase, the source said. And those cost-of-living increases — currently locked in at 3 percent — would fluctuate between 2 and 4 percent, depending on the rate of inflation

Additionally, all retirees would also have their cost-of-living increases frozen in 2016. And cost-of-living increases would be frozen in the future if the accounts dip below 59 percent funding, according to the source.

At least one union representing county workers is opposed to the proposal.

“AFSCME, for our part, has indicated to the president’s office we wanted to work together to come up with legislation that everyone could support, and there has been some give and take,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of County State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents about 4,000 county workers.

“Then there was a point probably two weeks ago when the president’s office indicated they were done talking, that they didn’t have any more time. We told them very strongly that we wanted to continue work together, that we felt we could reach an agreement. But they were insistent on the outlines of their proposal without further discussion,” Lindall said.

But Adam Rosen, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 73,  said his union supports the “basic components” of the bill.  Representatives for the Teamsters Union could not be reached for comment.  

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