Suburban mayors joined counterparts from across the state Monday to reiterate their call for lawmakers to overhaul local police and fire pension systems to avoid strains on municipal budgets, but there were few signs the legislature would take up the issue anytime soon.
No legislation has been drafted, talks are still in preliminary stages, and several mayors expressed skepticism they'd get a plan approved in an election year. But during a news conference Monday the mayors made it clear they wanted in on the discussions.
The mayors described a phenomenon familiar to Illinoisans: Rising pension costs are crowding out funding for other services, and municipalities are dealing with major cutbacks.
"If the pension system stays the way it is, we're not going to have the money to provide the services the way we do now," Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod said.
Though raising property taxes could fund the pensions, McLeod said, the village would "tax itself out of existence."
Mount Prospect Mayor Arlene Juracek said her village has been able to fund the pensions by reducing spending in other areas, but 30 percent of property taxes still go to pensions.
"We would have to stop and see where do we go from here," she said. "Our citizens don't have a stomach for a raise in property taxes."
Pension programs are created by state law, so only state legislators can make changes. The mayors said they'd like their plan to echo what lawmakers did with pensions for state workers and teachers. The mayors' suggestions included raising the retirement age and lowering annual cost-of-living adjustments.
Pensions dominated lawmakers' agendas last year, and they approved a new law, which essentially cuts benefits for state workers and retirees. Unions fought the measure and have filed several lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.
However, approving a plan before lawmakers adjourn on May 31 will be difficult. State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat central in previous pension talks, said a municipal pension bill would be complex to draft and debate in a few weeks.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who's in on talks with mayors and unions, said negotiating specifics was a "long ways" away. But he said the goal was to get a deal before the end of the spring session.
Unions contend the plan the state approved is unconstitutional and mayors' efforts are a way to avoid making required contributions to pension funds.
State law will require cities to make required contribution increases in 2016 or the state will do so by diverting state grant money to cities into pension funds.
State statistics show police and fire retirement funds have an average of 55 percent of the money needed, down 20 percent the past two decades. Mayors say part of the problem has been legislator-approved "pension sweeteners" with no additional money to pay for them.
Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association director Sean Smoot said public safety officials face risks each day and should receive their constitutionally-protected benefits. He said cities haven't kept up with required payments and are now facing tough decisions because of it.
"They've created a crisis," he said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Marty Hobe contributed to this report.