With rising pension costs putting a financial strain on local budgets, municipal leaders in DuPage County are calling on state lawmakers to expand proposed pension reform so it applies to police officers and firefighters.
Reforming the pensions of teachers and state workers is a topic Illinois lawmakers say they want to focus on during the upcoming legislative session, which starts next week. But unless something changes, there are no plans to touch the pensions of public safety employees.
"They (lawmakers) must in this legislative session deal with public safety pensions along with the other pensions," said Gary Grasso, mayor of Burr Ridge and president of the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, which this week released its legislative priorities for 2012. The group listed pension reform as a "critical" issue. Conference officials say a state law that reduces pension benefits for current police and firefighters is needed to stabilize municipal budgets and prevent pension systems from collapsing.
"We have a fear that at the end of the day the pensions won't be there," Hanover Park Village President Rodney Craig said. "That would be devastating for those of us who really respect what police and fire (employees) do."
In 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that requires new suburban police officers and firefighters to wait until age 55 to retire with a full pension.
That law, however, doesn't affect police or firefighters who are already working or retired. They continue to serve under pension rules that allow for a full pension after age 50.
In the meantime, existing pension benefit obligations are putting communities "on the verge of insolvency," according to the mayors and managers conference.
"If you did an analysis of any municipality in the state, you are going to find out that the money just isn't going to be there for the good policemen and firemen that we have in our communities," Grasso said.
Grasso cited Burr Ridge as an example of a municipality that has had its pension costs go up dramatically in recent years.
The village's police pension system was 110 percent funded in 1999. Now it's 68 percent funded even though the village contributes nearly four times more money annually, according to Grasso.
"That is the definition of unsustainable," Grasso said. "I am putting in more money and I'm falling behind."
Itasca Village President Jeff Pruyn said the village last year contributed roughly $600,000 to its police pension fund. That amount represented more than 30 percent of the town's payroll.
"As a non-home rule community, we couldn't just raise taxes to pay for that," Pruyn said. "So all that extra money that went into the police pension fund basically came out of our general fund and put more strain on that."
But while DuPage mayors say their communities need "immediate" relief, it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will respond. In fact, it's unclear if any pension reform plan capable of finding enough support in Springfield will emerge this year.
Grasso said conference representatives are planning to make monthly visits to Springfield to push the group's legislative priorities.
"We have the same constituency that the legislators do in Springfield," Grasso said. "So we want to press some of our points."