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posted: 2/6/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: One more example of state's illogical pension approach

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

DuPage County taxpayers may not be too excited to learn that they spent $970,856 last year to provide annual pension bumps for retired county employees. Imagine how McHenry County taxpayers likely feel to learn that the $396,750 they paid for those bumps was more than $100,000 more than it had to be for their county's employees. That extra hundred grand-plus got divvied up among county and municipal employees in DuPage County and other locales around the state where taxpayers paid less than their unit's employees received under a complex formula described Wednesday by Daily Herald Watchdog Editor Jake Griffin.

It all adds up to one more example of how Illinois' patchwork approach to public pensions is in desperate need of a comprehensive re-examination.

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Realistically, that re-examination won't -- and perhaps can't -- take place until the emerging crisis in local public safety employee pensions is addressed, but take place it surely must. The teacher pension solution reached last December staved off a looming disaster, and may even provide a thematic template for dealing with the untenable budget outlook for many suburbs' public safety employee pensions, but almost no one would realistically assert that it solves Illinois' pension puzzle.

The annual pension bumps for municipal employees, while not a drain on the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, simply emphasize another feature of public pensions in the state that make the system so erratic and illogical. Consider that many of the people running local government stand to benefit from the bonuses and the picture becomes even murkier.

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin deserves credit for acknowledging that the bonuses are "a concern," but it's not hard to see why DuPage County hasn't raised a ruckus about a system that enables its government employees to collect benefits that other counties' taxpayers supplement. It's less easy to understand why McHenry County officials don't complain about having to cut checks of nearly $400,000 each year for their employees' bonuses, when the employees' bonuses amount to far less than that. Except to realize, of course, that the employees are still getting nice bonuses.

This inequity, by the way, doesn't need to await a broader discussion on comprehensive pension reform. Especially considering that the practice was devised to produce equity with the compounding of cost-of-living adjustments allotted to education retirees -- calculations that are now eliminated -- there is ample precedent, not to mention good reason, to end it unilaterally.

Finally, lest you think these bonuses are no big deal, keep in mind that they cost local taxpayers across Illinois $41 million last year. That alone ought to have lawmakers as well as local government officials reviewing the practice and putting an end to it -- on the way, of course, to that all-important broader discussion that excesses like this make so necessary.

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