Let's face it, our municipal leaders are not in the most enviable position on this one: They need to get the public's blood boiling about pension reform.
It's a huge, huge issue with vast implications on all our pocketbooks, debated and legislated at length in the General Assembly, but still far from satisfactorily resolved. We've written countless stories and editorials on the topic, yet it's just not the thing you hear people discussing on the street or at the water cooler.
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But a more daunting task, some of our mayors will tell you, is putting themselves almost in an adversarial position with an employee group revered in many quarters: first responders. No one wants to be seen as the foe of the men and women who put their lives on the line for us. Yet the community leaders are attempting to get across what strikes me as two key points:
1. The pension system in Illinois clearly favors police and firefighters over the average Joe. And that's costing Joe Taxpayer a lot of money, suburban leaders say.
2. The system is unsustainable. Pension costs are eating up a an ever-increasing amount of the municipal budget, with municipal contributions statewide increasing from $247 million to $511 million between 2004 and 2010, according to figures from the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference. Without some kind of reform, i.e. union concessions or legislation, they argue, there might not be anything for anybody.
A group of DuPage County mayors, meeting last week with the Daily Herald Editorial Board, presented a laundry list of legislation that's benefitted first responders. The new laws range from changing the composition of local pension boards "to give local fire unions a 3-2 controlling share of the vote" to giving annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases to retirees. The latter might not have been a huge deal in the days of high inflation, but today it's generous.
Moreover, the mayors say. that 3 percent is compounded. It means first responders, who can retire at 55, will be making as much 10 years into retirement as they did in their final year on the job. That assumes the retiree is at maximum benefits, which by state law is 75 percent of the final salary. Other variables, such as unused accrued vacation time and overtime, can boost that final salary even higher, ensuring a quicker run up the pension ladder.
Now, you can argue the fairness of it all until you're blue in the face, but there's an important point: This is the law. The people we elected passed these laws, and now the beneficiaries sure don't see the justice in having them taken away.
When Robert Sanchez wrote up an account last week of our meeting with the mayors, he tried to call two state police and fire organizations for their perspective, but the calls weren't returned. So, he went with something Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois, told us earlier: "I find it interesting that they want to reform the pensions by cutting a promised benefit," he said.
So there you have it. An irresistible force versus an immovable object sort of thing.
This much seems obvious: Time is running short for something to give. And our suburban mayors were just a little flummoxed when they watched the state legislature recently come up with a Chicago pension plan fix right after Mayor Rahm Emanuel paid a visit.
The mayors visited Springfield, too. No such luck.
"Personally, I was patient until Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to Springfield and showed the rest of the mayors of the state how to get it done," Hanover Park Village President Rodney Craig said. "Then my patience kind of runs out."