SPRINGFIELD – After addressing Illinois’ own employee pension crisis, lawmakers now face an equally challenging task with the state’s cities, as mayors demand help with underfunded police and firefighter pensions before the growing cost “chokes” budgets and forces local tax increases.
The nine largest cities in Illinois after Chicago have a combined $1.5 billion in unfunded debt to public safety workers’ pension systems. Police and fire retirement funds for cities statewide have an average of just 55 percent of the money needed to meet current obligations to workers and retirees.
A bi-partisan legislative report in 2013 showed that funding levels for police and fire pensions outside Chicago dropped 20 percent between 1990 and 2010, although many are improving since the worst of the recent economic downturn.
The problems – a history of underfunding, the expansion of job benefits and the prospect of crushing future payments – mirror those that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel warned about when he asked the Legislature for relief last week.
In 2016, state law requires cities to make required contribution increases – in some cases, more than an additional $1 million annually – so they’ll reach 90 percent funding by 2040. If they don’t, the state will begin doing it for them, diverting grant money now used by cities elsewhere directly into the pension funds.
“No community, no matter how much they love and respect their public safety officers, can pay that going forward,” Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said.
The arguments over blame also echo the state and Chicago cases. While some officials question levels of worker benefits, union officials cite recent compromises and blame cities for bad choices in shirking payments.
“Our view is that we’ve already done our part in terms of pension benefit reductions,” said Sean Smoot, director of the Police Benevolent and Protective Association. “While employees pay their mandatory required contributions, for many years employers [did] not.”
Despite the urgency, the prospects for a solution are uncertain. Lawmakers may be hesitant to act against police and fire unions in an election year, and some who deal with the issue in Springfield consider it daunting to deal with about 650 unique police and fire funds throughout the state.
“There is no question that it’s the municipalities’ No. 1 concern, but how one does that, I wouldn’t know where to begin,” said Republican Rep. Darlene Senger of Naperville.
Here’s a sampling of Illinois cities’ challenges with police and fire pension funds:
With a population of nearly 200,000 and a booming Hispanic population, Aurora is now the state’s second largest city. It faces a required increase of more than $1 million into the police and fire pension funds each year for the next 25 years.
The city has $220 million in unfunded debt between the two funds, but also has one of the better funding levels at around 60 percent. Nonetheless, Weisner said it means they have not been able to hire new police and firefighters and have laid off some city workers.
“Without some reform there’s going to be cities that basically, I believe, will be going under,” he said.
Joliet, the fastest-growing Illinois city in the past decade with a population of 150,000, also must increase payments by about $1 million annually. It has $250 million in unfunded debt for public safety pensions, the most in Illinois outside of Chicago.
Mayor Tom Giarrante said the city has reduced its workforce by about 100 employees the past few years.
“As far as cuts, we’re down to the bone. I don’t think we can cut anymore,” said Giarrante, a former firefighter. “Raising taxes would absolutely be a last ditch effort.”
Giarrante argues that Joliet must rely on natural growth in sales tax and property tax revenues to cover the increasing costs. He believes that reducing worker benefits is wrong and won’t hold up in court.
In the state capital, where many of the 115,000 residents are state government workers, Springfield has close to $230 million in unfunded public safety pension debt, and faces increased contributions of about $500,000 annually. The fire pension funding level is at about 45 percent.
Mayor Michael Houston said city officials can lobby for changes, but the solution must come from state lawmakers who also determined benefit levels over the years.
“The city really had no input for the benefits. We only pay for it,” Houston said.
Rockford had its bond rating downgraded by Moody’s last week partly because of the pension obligations. Mayor Larry Morrissey, noting that the city has one of the highest crime rates in Illinois, said the city was forced to reduce its police force in part because of pension costs. They have about $180 million in unfunded debt but one of the better funding levels in the state at around 60 percent.
“Do I think something’s going to get done? No. It’s an election year,” Morrissey said.
Naperville, a far west Chicago suburb of about 140,000 people, has the healthiest police and fire pensions among Illinois’ largest cities – funding levels at about 70 percent and $100 million in unfunded debt. It put an extra $6 million into the funds last year while reducing the workforce by about 15 percent in recent years.
City manager Doug Krieger said the city is still operating in “lean mode.”
“Instead of just kind of burying our head in the sand, we’ve acknowledged that it is a significant problem,” Krieger said.