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Mayors: Legislature caused pension problems

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The General Assembly has generated numerous headlines lately for the budgetary disasters it has created for itself.

What's not always as apparent are the budgetary disasters it has created for other units of government.

At a meeting in the Loop Monday of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, one of the big topics of discussion was the sweeteners the General Assembly has ordered up for pensions in municipalities outside Chicago -- without contributing a dime toward the cost.

Under the new rules, police and firefighters can retire as early as age 50 after 30 years of service, with a pension of 75 percent of their final pay rate. Benefits for survivors also were boosted.

"Our pension costs have gone from $750,000 a year a couple of years ago to $1 million now," says Tinley Park Mayor Edward Zabrocki. "In two to three years, it will be $1.5 million."

Last week, a new group of municipal leaders called Pension Fairness for Illinois Communities called for police officers and firefighters to pay more for their pensions in a new two-tier system. The group also wants to merge more than 600 municipal funds into one and to ban any more sweeteners unless they are approved by a super majority in the Legislature.

Existing workers would see no change in their benefits.

Overall, three bills enacted by the Legislature from 1999 to 2004 have driven up annual police and fire pension costs by $12.1 million, the group says. That comes on top of big losses in pension-fund investments since the stock market plunged in 2008.

"This is probably the biggest issue facing our local governments," says state Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park), who has introduced legislation to reform the pension system. "There is a group of mayors down in Springfield every week lobbying on this issue."
Representatives of public safety workers say municipal leaders are exaggerating the impact of the benefit improvements, and the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois has proposed a different plan that would not cut benefits.

But municipal leaders say the current model is just not sustainable and say they will soon be forced to begin layoffs and program cuts.

Public safety workers deserve good pensions, but Zabrocki says boosting benefits lets state legislators look like "the good guys," leaving village officials to play the villain while they try to make the numbers work.

Municipal leaders shouldn't have to feel like villains. It's time to reform the system.

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