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County employee pensions may come up short

Friday, February 04, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

Despite an upturn in investment returns, pension funds for local government workers are facing a nearly $10 billion shortfall, according to a report to be released today by a tax watchdog.

The Civic Federation is sounding the alarm that, without changes, Cook County residents who pay property taxes could be asked to pick up a greater portion of future pension costs.

"It's a disturbing trend," said Laurence Msall, president of the federation, which analyzed nine local government pension funds. "Even though the stock market picked up quite a bit, we saw that all of the pensions lost ground."

The group looked at results from 2003, the latest available numbers, Msall said. It analyzed pension funds for Chicago teachers, firefighters, police officers, city workers and park district employees, as well as employees from Cook County, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Those funds cover more than 125,000 active employees and nearly 79,000 retired beneficiaries or their spouses.

After two years of investment losses, the nine funds combined in 2003 to boost investment income by $2.7 billion. But because of rising costs the funds have to pay out, the gap between the funds' projected value and liabilities also widened by $2.7 billion in 2003, the study found.

Higher taxes or fewer services

The nine funds had a value of $31.7 billion but liabilities of $41.3 billion, according to the group's annual study.

If there isn't enough money to pay out benefits, the employers are on the hook for the shortfall. With limited ways to boost cash, that means government agencies could be forced to turn to higher property taxes -- or cut services, Msall said.

The Civic Federation is advocating that the government bodies take long-term approaches to ease the crunch by reducing pension benefits for new employees, cutting existing jobs and pushing for larger contributions from both the employer and the employee.

Cook County officials stressed that its contributions are set by state statute, and it has met its obligations. Pension fund officials could not be reached for comment.

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