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Cook County governments owe $139 billion—up 30% in six years

Monday, November 06, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Local governments in Cook County, including the county itself, now have a whopping $139 billion in debt, most of it unfunded and most of it money owed to municipal and school workers for pensions and retiree health costs.

That's the bottom line of the latest Debt Disclosure Report issued by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, with the combined figure that taxpayers are on the hook for rising 30 percent just since 2011.

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There are some signs that the rate of increase in combined debt has slowed a bit as the city, county and Chicago Public Schools—the biggest governments covered in the report—begin to put more aside for their pension costs.

But most of those governments are years away from actually reducing their unfunded liability. In other words, they're still catching up as both annual contributions and total unfunded liability rise.

Pappas says that's bad news.

"If you're going to purchase a piece of property, it would be a really good idea if you look at the (debt) numbers in your area to see what you're inheriting," she told me. "Since I started doing this, the numbers have only kept rising . . . We can't continue to go up this much. At some point, the dam breaks."

The Pappas report compiles in one spot figures that municipalities, school boards, park districts and every other unit of local government in the county files with her office as per a county ordinance. It is based on self-reporting, so some errors are possible, and some reporting definitions have been tweaked through the years.

Basically, however, the layout is fairly simple. One column lists total debt, then the next, the share of that debt that is in net pension liabilities—money that is owed annuitants, but has not been set aside. Another column adds in what is owed in health care benefits, as well as the annual budgets and recent changes in average salaries and health care benefits for the governments involved. Most of the data is from 2016.

One thing the report doesn't include is sinking funds and other escrow accounts that governments have set aside to repay non-pension debt. But that's a minority share, with unfunded pension liabilities comprising $69 billion of the $139 billion in total debt, and another $7 billion in projected retiree health-care benefits.

Total debt in last year's report was $131.5 billion, so it's up about $8 billion in one year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest unfunded pension debts are owed in older and larger cities, not only Chicago but communities including Elgin, Evanston, Oak Park and Cicero, where roughly half of gross debt or more is in the form of unfunded pension liability.

One other column focuses on the share of pension debt that is funded with existing assets. Pappas' office color-coded that column, with green signaling a government that has at least 80 percent of the assets on hand needed to meet projected liabilities, yellow 50 percent to 80 percent, and red below 50 percent.

Take a look and see how your town rates.

Cook County governments owe $139 billion

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