The average pension for a retired public employee in Illinois is quickly approaching the average salary of those still working.
The gap has narrowed rapidly over the past decade, illustrating the problem of years of generous salary growth, compounded cost-of-living adjustments for pensioners and the financial perils of early retirement incentives, critics say.
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"More and more people are making more in retirement than they did when they were working, and I just don't see how you can do that," said David From, Illinois state director for Americans for Prosperity, a national tax policy reform organization. "People in the public sector are not making a pauper's wage."
The average 2013 pension was $31,674 for retirees in nine statewide and metropolitan Chicago public pension systems for government workers, teachers, legislators, judges and university professors, a Daily Herald analysis shows. That's 60 percent of the $55,120 average salary for pension fund members who are still working.
Ten years ago, the average pension was less than half of the average salary.
That doesn't bode well for the financial health of those retirement systems because the amount going into the funds isn't keeping up with the amount coming out, pension experts said.
"There was a long period of time where there were rapid (pay) raises in the public sector ... (and) that growth is tied to the pension formula," said state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who helped sculpt the state's most recent pension reform plan. "But a lot has changed and we've seen a dramatic slowdown, particularly in the last five years."
As a result, the number of retirees keeps rising, while the number of active employees has dropped. Many retirement systems are not being fully funded by employer and state contributions.
In fact, some retirement systems have more retirees collecting pensions than active employees paying into the system.
The State Employees' Retirement System, for instance, had 65,050 former employees or surviving spouses receiving retirement benefits in 2013.
That same year, just 61,545 employees paid into the system.
The number of pensioners has increased nearly 36 percent from 285,900 in 2004 to 388,340 in 2013.
Conversely, the ranks of employees have dropped 2.6 percent, from 507,212 in 2003 to 494,084 in 2013 for the Illinois Municipal Fund, Teachers' Retirement System, State University Retirement System, Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, Cook County Pension Fund, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Pension Fund, State Employees' Retirement System, Judges' Retirement System and General Assembly Retirement System.
The narrowest gap between average salary and average pension is for members of retirement systems where advanced degrees and training are required.
In 2013, the average Teachers' Retirement System pension was 69.4 percent of the average pay for those still working, according to the system's annual comprehensive financial report.
Judges have the highest average salary -- $183,998 -- and highest average pension -- $105,341.
The gap between average pay and average pension is widest within retirement systems with more transient employees.
The 108,814 local government employees receiving IMRF benefits in 2013 averaged pensions of $13,243. That was 34.8 percent of the system's $38,059 average salary. However, that's still a big change from a decade ago when the average IMRF pension was 27.9 percent of the average salary of workers paying into the system.
Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative organization that tracks and analyzes government spending, said reducing the number of employees had an unintended effect on pension costs.
"There were also a lot of early retirement incentives for all these teachers and others," Dabrowski said. "While there was a benefit to cutting immediate costs, what you've done is shifted that burden to the retirement plans."
While Dabrowski and his organization are proponents of moving public employees to self-managed retirement plans like 401(k) programs, Biss believes pension reform laws and restraint by government should eventually even out the funding problems these systems are grappling with.
"In the short term it feels like a disaster," he said, "but on the other hand if you make it through this difficult period it does project out over the course of a generation less of a pension liability."