Mayor: Suburban pension mess a looming 'nuclear winter'

November 19, 2012

As Illinois lawmakers prepare to wrestle with the task of righting the state’s woefully underfunded pension systems, a coalition of suburban and downstate municipalities is likening their own pension problems to a coming fiscal “nuclear winter.”

Representatives of the Pension Fairness for Illinois Communities Coalition, which comprises about 200 suburban and downstate local governments, said at a Chicago forum on Monday they are staring down a total of at least $7.6 billion in unfunded pension obligations for their police and firefighters.

They blame much of the problem of benefit increases passed by the General Assembly that local governments have to pay for.

“Every day we put off this problem, we continue to increase the burden on our municipalities, making further service cuts inevitable, making tax increases larger and shifting this crushing burden to our children,” said Wilmette Village President Christopher Canning.

Canning said municipalities like his were hit hard when state lawmakers recently lowered the retirement age for cops and firefighters, which could force towns and cities to hike taxes, cut services or both, he said.

“Now we face a near nuclear bomb that’s already taken off, and probably a nuclear winter,” said Palos Hills Mayor Gerald Bennett.

The suburban and downstate police and fire pension problem pales in comparison to the one state lawmakers will face when they return to Springfield for their veto session next week. Illinois’ five retirement systems for state workers have nearly $97 billion in unfunded benefits – the price tag for future payouts that the state won’t be able to cover.

But the comparatively small $7.6 billion in unfunded police and fire pensions is big money for smaller units of government. The coalition is calling on the General Assembly to put a freeze on pension cost-of-living increases, raise the retirement age and make workers pay more into their pension piggy banks.

“It’s just like being divorced, guys,” said Westchester Mayor Sam Pulia. “You’re not gonna be happy with the decision, and probably your wife isn’t gonna be happy with it, either. But at least we’re gonna move on from there and try to fix this. And I think we can.”

But even Canning acknowledged state lawmakers will likely try to tackle Illinois’ pension problem first, before moving onto municipal and downstate retirement systems.