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posted: 1/29/2012 5:00 AM

DuPage mayors want pension reform — and more

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Several months ago, I accepted an invitation to speak before the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference. The group wanted me to address the topic: How does the Daily Herald choose and write its editorials, and how can we municipal leaders have some input into that process?

I explained that the process is a collaborative effort among editorial board members. One person is charged with picking a topic and making a "pitch" that's ultimately given the all-clear by Editor John Lampinen or Jim Slusher, our assistant managing editor/Opinion. The editorial then gets a thorough going over by other editorial board members to be sure our positions are consistent, logic is sound.

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As far as what we pick to write, it's pretty basic. We almost always choose topics that play off the stories we publish. We'll rarely write about national issues, sometimes state topics, but most often local issues are our bread and butter.

As far as how the mayors might get their message out, I gave this advice, admittedly with a tinge of trepidation: Give us a call, set up a meeting with the editorial board, we'll do our best to accommodate you. Then I added to the 50 or so municipal leaders in the room: But please don't all call at once.

The good news for me is that didn't happen. In fact, after coordinating everyone's schedules, a contingent of mayors -- Larry Hartwig from Addison; Gary Grasso from Burr Ridge; Gayle Smolinski from Roselle; Jeff Pruyn from Itasca; Rodney Craig of Hanover Park and two mayors' conference administrators -- stopped by this past week to pitch the legislative agenda they were presenting to state lawmakers from our area that same evening.

Such editorial board visits, I should mention, occur all the time with a variety of groups. We try to have a reporter present and keep the discussions on the record. In this instance, Robert Sanchez, who covers county government, was present with pen and digital recorder. Slusher and other members of the editorial board will be taking up later whether to support the mayors' position, oppose it or take a pass on the matter.

It should be no surprise that topping the mayors' agenda was a topic that seems to be on everyone's mind these days: pension reform. The matter has been debated at length in the General Assembly, and legislation is pending that backers say will start to curb the overwhelming public pension costs. Specifically, as Sanchez pointed out in his Friday story, the DuPage leaders say pension reform shouldn't be limited to teachers and state workers -- it should include police officers and firefighters.

It's not hard to see why this is important to our municipal leaders. Those public safety employees are among the biggest employee groups in most municipalities, where labor costs make up the lion's share of the budget. Cops and firefighters are represented by powerful unions and aren't afraid of taking their case to arbitration should a salary dispute arise during contract negotiations. Saying no to them often can result in a case going to an arbitrator, who, under Illinois law, must come down on one side or the other; there's no splitting the baby in half.

The mayors also say municipalities lose most of these arbitration cases, which is another story for another day. The bottom line, though, is that as salaries grow so do pensions. And with police and firefighters hired before 2010 able to retire at age 50, they'll be drawing on their pensions for quite some time. Sanchez cited one example of the growing pension weight on municipalities: In Burr Ridge, the police pension fund was 110 percent funded in 1999; today, it's at 68 percent even though the village contributes four times as much money annually.

But the mayors have to walk a fine line. They can't be seen as attempting to take away the benefits of the people who serve and protect our communities. As Craig put it, "We have a fear that at the end of the day the pensions won't be there. That would be devastating for those of us who really respect what police and fire (employees) do."

There's much, much more to all of this, and even though pension reform is the mayors' "critical" legislative item, it is among several issues they're taking up with state leaders. We're working on stories on the other topics as well. Here's one we'll be pursuing this week -- how the heck did the O'Hare Western Access plan morph into the Western Bypass, in spite of the massive toll increase everyone started paying this year?

jdavis@dailyherald.com

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