Downstate Mayors Want Pension Overhaul

Apr 30, 2014

A couple dozen mayors from throughout Illinois came to Springfield Wednesday, calling on legislators to help fix downstate pension systems that they say are unsustainable.

Mayors from around the state addressing media in the Capitol
Credit WUIS/Lee Strubinger

Municipalities are on the hook for paying local police and firefighters’ retirement benefits.

But the pension rates are set by the state.

Mayors say lawmakers have increasingly “sweetened” benefits – without giving their cities any funding to cover the extra cost.

It’s left many pension systems severely underfunded.

The General Assembly recently approved a measure intended to prop up several Chicago pension funds …  but so far that has not included public safety pensions.

“If they’re going to deal with the city of Chicago’s police and fire pension funds, they also need to deal with the downstate police and fire pension funds because our problems are as monumental as the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago,” Springfield Mayor Mike Houston said.

He says municipalities will have to either cut services or raise taxes, or some combination of the two, to fund their pension systems.  He suggests increasing the retirement age, or doing away with a compounded cost-of-living adjustment.

But union members oppose scaling back benefits they say they earned, and that making firefighters and police officers work into late middle age could pose a public safety concern.

There's another proposal mayors around the state are concerned about making its way through the state legislature.

It could give unions greater much say in how many firefighters are needed in a city --- the measure would make firefighter staffing levels subject to contract negotiations.

That’s already the case in Springfield, where Mayor Mike Houston says it has made the cost of fire protection more expensive.

Houston says in an election year, legislators may be looking for ways to curry favor with unions.

“Well, there’s there’s no question that there are large amounts of of money flowing into state legislator’s campaign funds from the Illinois Federation of of Firefighters,” Houston said.

But firefighters say minimum staffing level requirements help ensure they’re safe when responding to an emergency.