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Springfield woes stalling Cook County pension reform talks

Thursday, July 12, 2012
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Springfield's failure to enact pension reform for state workers may be creating a little collateral damage up here in Cook County.

During much of the spring, I'd been hearing good noises over talks between county President Toni Preckwinkle's administration and worker unions on how to close a $5.8 billion gap in retirement funding.

Ms. Preckwinkle was talking about the same sort of concessions that are on the table in Springfield, including raising the retirement age, hiking the employee contribution and cutting the annual pension cost-of-living adjustments. But according to a source who would know, she also was putting some new money on the table, something that leaders of other governments have not done.

As of a couple of weeks ago, I'm told, they were pretty close to a deal.

But then, state lawmakers kicked the state can down the road. That took some pressure off to do a county deal now, with talks at least temporarily stalled.

Officially, both sides suggest that they still think progress has been made and a deal can be made that would secure the pensions with more cash and shore up retiree health care in exchange for employee concessions.

"We're working diligently with organized labor to find a solution," said Kurt Summers, Ms. Preckwinkle's chief of staff. "I'm encouraged that a solution exists."

"We are encouraged that the county — unlike the city and state — is taking a collaborative, not confrontational, approach," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME, the county government's single largest union. "We will continue to work to solve the pension funding problem in a way that is constitutional and fair to workers."

We'll see.

Meanwhile, some facts about the situation:

The pension fund now has only about 57.5 percent of the assets on hand that it needs to pay promised benefits. Workers pay 8.5 percent of salary toward pensions and do not get Social Security.

Also: The average retiree now gets a pension of about $38,000. But the average person retiring today with a full career in county government — 25 to 29 years of credit — gets about $48,000. Both figures will rise over time with the COLA.

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