Thirty-three years seems like a long time, until you figure that working that long for Cook County government will get you a pension of 80 percent of your final salary, as long as you're 50 or older.
Only judges, statewide elected officials like the governor or attorney general and members of the Illinois General Assembly have it better, with just 20 years on the job and a lifetime pension based on 85 percent of their salaries.
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Compared to that, police and firefighters can get pensions after 30 years, but based on just 75 percent of their earnings.
And Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund contributors -- including workers in most counties outside Cook -- have to put in 40 years of service to receive pensions based on 75 percent of their final earnings. Elected officials in DuPage and Will counties, however, receive significantly enhanced pensions through a program provided by the IMRF that was voted in by those county boards years ago.
Critics contend Cook County's system can't sustain itself in its current incarnation with 15,089 people receiving pensions totaling almost $420 million in 2010. County officials caution that the program has only 60 percent of the obligated funds. Meanwhile, some board commissioners believe employees should either pay more into their own retirement or work more years to balance the fund and keep it going for future generations.
"As a broad spectrum I would say the pension systems throughout Illinois are bankrupting the state and we need to come up with a solution that protects our workers and provides for them without incurring any more expense to the taxpayer," said Timothy Schneider, a Republican Cook County commissioner from Bartlett.
Schneider said there have been discussions about creating a three-tiered retirement system for county and forest preserve employees that would require workers to either contribute more, work more years to maximize their retirement payout or contribute to a program similar to the private sector's 401(k) plans.
Currently, Cook County government employees contribute 8.5 percent toward their pensions. Schneider said suggestions have ranged from an increase of 3 to 5 percentage points.
Like many pension plans, Cook County's pays spouses of deceased retirees 65 percent of what the retiree would have earned. In 2010, 2,418 surviving spouses were paid $29.5 million in pensions. Longtime Board President John Stroger's widow Yonnie Stroger received $96,188 last year, the fourth highest payout to any surviving spouse, according to pension fund records. Children under 18 also receive survivor benefits.
Christina Tobin, vice president of Taxpayers United of America, said the research her organization has done shows it's not just an Illinois problem. The Chicago-based group is launching a nationwide pension database in the coming days she believes will help highlight the increasing problems with public pensions.
"It's a flawed system to the core," she said. "We need to end all pensions for all new government hires and put them into Social Security and 401(k) programs. The last thing we want is to see all these employees without their pensions. That would be horrible for the economy."
In Cook County, retirees can collect benefits at age 50 if they have accrued enough service time. By comparison, in the private sector anyone born after 1960 won't receive full Social Security benefits until they turn 67. Private-sector employees also can't start using 401(k) savings until they are 59½ without penalties.
Currently, 13 former elected Cook County commissioners receive pensions. The highest paid is Bobbie Steele, a longtime commissioner from Chicago, who received $148,611 last year because her pension was aided by a brief stint as board president when Stroger was incapacitated from a stroke in 2006. Steele was president of the board for less than six months. But her pension is calculated on her salary as president, instead of the $85,000 annual salary commissioners have received since 2000.
Tobin urged voters to educate themselves about the issues facing public retirement programs.
"Every single state, it's consistent and there's just no difference," she said. "If we don't do something, it's obvious the system is going to collapse. We need true electoral reform."
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