Suburban mayors might have to wait for pension relief
SPRINGFIELD — If history is a guide, suburban mayors looking for relief from their rising police and firefighter pension costs might have to wait in line.
State lawmakers return to Springfield this week to perhaps start brokering a deal on cutting back teachers' and state workers' pensions.
But that yearlong debate has rarely included talks of solving local officials' concerns at the same time.
"It would require more discussion, certainly, than we've had," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and key figure in the move to cut the state's pension costs.
Local officials are looking to Springfield for relief because mayors and municipal trustees can't set police and firefighter pension benefits, but they have to pay the growing bill.
A Daily Herald report last week showed that despite the recession, Chicago and suburban towns increased property taxes by nearly $800 million in 2010 compared to five years earlier.
Local officials blame that hike largely on increasing worker costs, including retirement payments.
Yet proponents of cutting municipal pensions face the same difficulties that state lawmakers have encountered in trying to pare teachers' and state workers' benefits.
Firefighters and police are often respected public servants who have contributed to their own retirements, so cutting their benefits can be politically difficult.
Suburban mayors have a strong ally in Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wants lawmakers to address local pension costs before the new Illinois General Assembly is sworn in Jan. 9, the same time frame Gov. Pat Quinn has set for dealing with the state pensions.
"I do believe we're going to work on pensions in the lame duck session, and get it done," Emanuel said at a news conference last week.
Mayors waiting for relief seem less interested in when they'll get help than in whether they will get help at all.
"I'm more concerned that it happens, period," Buffalo Grove Mayor Jeff Braiman said.
Illinois Municipal League legislative director Joe McCoy points to 2010, when lawmakers cut retirement benefits for new state workers and public school teachers but left current employees alone.
Then, months later, Quinn and lawmakers approved similar cuts for local police and firefighters.
McCoy worries that if lawmakers agree on one batch of pension reforms for state systems, the momentum to work on local concerns could be lost.
Yet, the complexity of pension benefits makes it difficult to tackle all public employee groups at once, others say.
"Every system is a little bit different," Nekritz said. "There is no one-size-fits-all solution."
There's no guarantee lawmakers will even find a solution for the state's pension worries before Jan. 9.
If they don't, the rising retirement payments are certain to hamper their budget once again, taking away money the state might otherwise spend on schools, health care and other services.
Even if lawmakers do agree on a fix, the fate of the plan will almost certainly be in the hands of the courts because a union lawsuit is expected.
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