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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008 08:29 am

In a pickle

City recruits an expert to tackle pension problem

Untitled Document Just call him our resident “Mr. Fix-It.”
Timothy Bramlet became Springfield’s newest financial adviser after signing on as chairman of the city’s Blue Ribbon Committee this week. Bramlet — along with a select group of business, labor, and community leaders — is expected to spend countless hours between now and early summer evaluating the effects of increasing police and fire pension obligations and identifying tactics to lessen the city’s looming financial burden. Due to changes in state pension law and guidelines, Springfield currently owes nearly $115 million in unfunded police and fire pensions. The city estimates that this figure will continue to grow. Davlin previously advised the City Council that the only way to evade debt and financial crisis would be to raise the property tax for the first time since 1984 — a measure that aldermen have since avoided. Bramlet is no stranger to Springfield’s fiscal sorrows. He was previously called on by Mayor Karen Hasara and assigned to the task of merging the Springfield Park District and the Springfield Recreation Department. After nearly insurmountable odds and two years of work, Bramlet recalls, his commission designed a successful framework that has benefited both city taxpayers and park district patrons. Additionally, Bramlet, the former president of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois and the current owner of his namesake legislative and lobbying firm, has headed numerous other financial projects such as Gov. Jim Edgar’s blue ribbon commission on property tax reform. He says it was Davlin’s persuasiveness and his own familiarity with city budget strife that convinced him to get on board with this latest undertaking. “I had a conversation with the mayor a couple of months ago, and I told him that the only way to get the politics out of it would be to put folks from the private sector in there to come up with solutions,” Bramlet says. “Little did I know that he would come back and ask me to chair it.”
Bramlet will be joined by up to 11 other committee members, whose names will be announced by the city later this week. Their first task will be to “go back to school” and learn everything there is to know about police and fire pension funds and the city’s tax structure. After that, Bramlet says, it’s all about brainstorming different ideas and evolving them into a game plan. Bramlet concedes that the committee will face certain challenges along the way, especially since it is only the second in the state after Chicago created for the sole purpose of studying the pension problem. Not only will the committee members need to be creative, he says, but they will be pressured by other communities who are also waiting for answers.
Then there’s the biggest obstacle — making Springfieldians and their aldermen happy. “The challenge is that there are no easy answers,” Bramlet says. “No matter what we recommend, hardly any of it will be popular with either the elected officials or the taxpayers in the city.”
It’s too late for Bramlet’s solutions to make a difference in the fiscal year 2009 budget, which must be passed by March 1. But after considering all viable factors including existing revenue streams, cuts in services, and new or different taxes, Bramlet hopes that the committee will develop a long-term plan to assist the city’s future decisions. “This problem is a much bigger, longer-term problem, and it demands that we not just make quick decisions to get us through the next few months,” he says. “We’re going to try to come up with something that makes economic sense.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com
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