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Thursday, March 20, 2014 12:01 am

Springfield leaders are in pension denial

 For decades Illinois politicians ignored the state’s mounting pension debt. Now, with a state crisis that’s reeling out of control, Illinoisans are experiencing what happens when politicians put their heads in the sand.
 Unfortunately, Springfield residents now find themselves headed in the same direction, but at the local level.

The city’s pension shortfall has jumped to $315 million, more than double what it was a decade ago. Its three pension systems have only half the funds necessary to meet their future retirement obligations.

If nothing is done, the retirement security of Springfield’s police and firefighters is at risk.

Yet the majority of Springfield’s leaders don’t feel the urgency to act. Instead they are trivializing the problems that threaten the well-being of city residents.

A look at several key indicators shows a worsening situation for everyone.

City services are being cut. Residents looking for proof that the city’s pension crisis is affecting their daily lives need not look far.

Springfield students now have three fewer library branches to attend and 20 fewer library staff to interact with.

Residents in neighborhoods with crumbling sidewalks and growing potholes have to wait longer for repairs. The city has 60 fewer public works positions today than it did in 2008.

And with some areas in Springfield experiencing increased crime, residents now have 24 fewer sworn officers to protect their neighborhoods and families than they did six years ago.

Rising pension costs are the major cause of shrinking city services.

Taxpayers are tapped out. Springfield’s pension shortfall is now so large that taxpayers are putting in $4 for every $1 city employees put into the pension funds.

Despite their efforts, Springfield taxpayers shouldn’t expect to contribute less anytime soon. Springfield households are on the hook for nearly $7,000 in city-worker pension debt, double the amount compared to a decade ago.

Pension costs have grown to such an extent that general fund property tax revenues, those that exclude tax revenues dedicated to items such as bond repayments, are no longer enough to pay for the city’s pension costs.

The city’s own 2012 Tax Levy and Rate Report shows that more than 95 percent of the city’s general fund property tax levy went to pensions. That’s up from 66 percent in 2006. And that doesn’t include taxpayer funds that go to repay debt related to pensions.

The bottom line is there’s no general fund property taxes left for city services. That’s forced the city council to resort to increasing sales taxes substantially to make ends meet – three times in the last nine years.

That’s why it’s so discouraging to hear Springfield’s leaders minimize the impact rising pension costs are having on the city and its residents. They’d rather defend the status quo and stay on their campaign message than be honest with Springfield residents.

Fortunately, Springfield Alderman Joe McMenamin, along with city leaders from cities such as Rockford and Burr Ridge, are demanding reforms from the Illinois Statehouse. They’re frustrated with a system that allows state legislators to increase pension benefit levels for local employees, but forces cities to pick up the tab.

Springfield’s pension crisis is worsening every day. City workers, retirees and residents can’t afford more of the status quo.

If Springfield Mayor Mike Houston and others on the Springfield City Council truly care about the well-being of Springfield families, they’ll get their heads out of the sand and join other leaders in calling for real retirement reforms.

Ted Dabrowski of Wilmette is the vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization working to advance a mission of freedom and fairness in Illinois. Follow @illinoispolicy to learn more.


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