Senate approves lower pensions for police, fire

December 2, 2010 (SPRINGFIELD, Ill.)

The bill also requires cities and municipalities to contribute more money to pension funds.

The police and fire pension reform bill, supported by the leaders of both parties, passed the state Senate by an overwhelming 46-4 vote.

"I think every single person in the General Assembly has finally realized that the public pensions in this state are out of control," said Sen. Christine Radogno, (R) minority leader.

"It is kind of hard to go to somebody and say, 'we have a great deal, but would you give up this, this, and this? But it's a good deal,'" said Sen. Terry Link, (D) Waukegan.

The bill sets up a two-tiered pension system for public-safety workers throughout the state. For cops and firefighters hired after January 1, it pushes back the full benefits retirement age from 50 to 55. It limits the maximum salary on which a pension amount is based and stops the practice in which many cops and firefighters get promotions and raises during their last year of service for the purpose of qualifying them for larger pensions.

Many see the measure helping over the long haul, but not the short term. In Evanston, for instance, property taxes are going up 3-percent to meet the increase in police and fire pension obligations.

"The alternatives are to let police and firemen to have more layoffs, and we don't want to do that in Evanston. And I have to give a great deal of credit to our police and fire department. We saw this coming early," said Elizabeth Tisdahl, Evanston's mayor.

Police and firefighters in Evanston agreed to a one-year pay freeze in return for no layoffs, but the property taxes will up to meet the pension obligations.

As painful as the problem is in the northern suburb and other communities of like size, it pales in comparison to what Chicago faces. The bill requires municipalities to pick up the pace of the contributions, and that means in five years Chicago must start paying $550 million annually for the next quarter of a century.

The mayor and aldermen are screaming the bill will crush the city and they are working to ease the financial sting of the reform.

"This would be a staggering blow to Chicago's property taxes. It would mean the largest property tax increase in the history of the city of Chicago," said Mayor Daley.

"Chicago just can't afford higher property taxes or mortgages or losing their homes any more, they already, they can't afford them," said Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward.

Despite the decreased retirement benefits for newly hired members, the Chicago police and fire unions supported the bill because it also forces cities to increase contributions to their currently underfunded pension systems.

"The most important aspect of this legislation is to ensure the pensions are there for current employees and future employees," said Mark Donohue, Fraternal Order of Police.

Ill. State Senator Tony Munoz (D-Chicago) made the argument against the bill on the Senate floor but to no avail.

"We pass the bill and the governor signs it, the city of Chicago, homeowners and businessmen are on the hook for over $500 million," said Sen. Munoz.

Senate President John Cullerton says he'll support a so-called trailer bill in January to address the city's concerns. But there are no guarantees how a trailer bill affecting only the city of Chicago would fare in the Senate or the House.

Gov. Pat Quinn isn't saying whether he'll sign the bill in the present form, and questions linger.

"I won't sign my name unless it is done right," said Quinn.

"I'm worried about the years to come. If we don't get real pension reform, eventually we'll be faced with the layoffs," said Tisdahl.

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