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Article posted: 12/4/2012 7:27 PM

Mayors call for reform to police, fire pensions

By Eric Peterson

Pension reform was a hot topic in November's state legislative elections, with many winning candidates pledging to address the issue immediately.

But according to some suburban mayors and managers, the kind of reform that legislators have in mind is all about getting only the state's financial house in order -- barely touching on the public safety pensions that are taking a larger and larger share of municipal budgets each year.

Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson, Roselle Mayor Gayle Smolinski, Hoffman Estates Mayor William McLeod, Naperville City Manager Douglas Krieger, Wilmette Village President Christopher Canning and administrators of the Northwest Municipal Conference met with the Daily Herald Editorial Board this week to discuss their urgent need for pension reform on the local level.

They said while the legislature controls and sometimes even changes the laws governing police and firefighter pensions, lawmakers' main concern is only to make the pension system for state employees sustainable.

Legislative changes have made the task for municipal governments more difficult and costly, Canning said. Among those changes are lowering the retirement age from 55 to 50 and setting annual cost-of-living adjustments at 3 percent.

These changes have created a bigger challenge for Wilmette's budget than did the recession, Canning said.

"If Wilmette can't make it, how can these other communities make it?" he said.

Though none of the municipalities represented expect to be among the first in the state to reach a crisis level with their budgets, they fear legislators won't address the issue until firefighters' and police officers' pension checks start bouncing.

Smolinski said public safety pension reform has been a part of DuPage County municipalities' legislative agenda since 1987, and yet she's still asking for the same thing 25 years later.

She said Roselle is among the non-home-rule communities that will have no choice but to start cutting services to meet pension obligations. The village already has cut its workforce by 15 percent in recent years, she said.

Most other municipal employees belong to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, which hasn't experienced the same sweeteners as public safety employees have, Canning said. That's why IMRF employees make up the majority of most community's staffs, but the minority of their pension payments.

A group called Pension Fairness for Illinois Communities is not just complaining about the issue but also trying to bring some solutions to the table, Canning said.

Their four main suggestions: increase employee contributions, lower the current 3 percent cost-of-living increases, raise the retirement age back to 55 and require 35 years of employment to reap the maximum pension benefit.

The mayors said they're still trying hard to get legislators to grasp the gravity of the problem. Larson joked that failure to act should result in state legislators being sentenced to serve a term on a village board.

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