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Editorial: Look out, taxpayers: When governments have more pensioners than employees

Thursday, February 14, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

Cook County property tax bills are due March 1, and don’t skip the fine print. Or the aspirin.

Once again, tax bills include a listing of the staggering shortfalls in government employee pension and health care funds. Those debts continue to increase the pressure to raise property taxes. But this year, there’s more to madden taxpayers. They can access online, through Treasurer Maria Pappas’ office, the raw numbers of active employees paying into a particular pension fund, and the number of retirees depending on that pension fund, for each Cook County taxing body including Chicago’s.

 

For each active worker, four pensioners

For 169 governmental bodies, the numbers are lopsided. In some cases hundreds — and in Chicago’s case, thousands — more retirees are drawing from a fund than active workers are paying into it. Even in a small suburban district such as the Arlington Heights Park District, 432 retirees are pulling from that district’s pension fund with only 103 active employees paying into it.

In the city of Chicago, according to the treasurer’s numbers, the gap is smaller in percentage terms, but in terms of the gap, more dramatic. Including Chicago Board of Education administrative retirees, the city’s four pension funds are supporting 47,592 retirees. But only 35,655 active employees — that’s minus the education administrators — are paying into the funds. That’s a difference of 11,937.

Why does it matter? It is further proof of the urgent need for elected officials at all levels of government to make substantive, serious and unpopular decisions to right-size pension benefits and lift the brick off taxpayers who, ultimately, are responsible for the unsustainable costs and debts in the funds.

 

Chicago’s pension crisis — its four funds’ average funding ratio is only 26 percent — is one reason this editorial board endorses former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley for mayor. He is the only leading candidate who supports loosening the Illinois Constitution’s overly rigorous pension clause. Amending that clause would allow the legislature to protect benefits already earned but modify benefits going forward. The next mayor, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and future legislatures need to take drastic steps to stabilize state and local pension systems, and protect rank-and-file taxpayers. The alternative is to let the crisis intensify indefinitely — to lock future generations into paying pension debts incurred in the past and present.

More examples from the numbers Pappas collected, which reflect government funds in Cook County as of Jan. 9 — and do not include employees or retirees covered by state pension funds:

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has 2,042 active employees and 2,408 pensioners. The village of Niles has 225 employees and 580 retirees. The village of Oak Park has 369 employees and 648 pension beneficiaries.

The village of Elmwood Park has 122 employees and 396 pensioners. The village of Oak Lawn has 295 employees and 553 retirees. The city of Blue Island has 170 employees and 404 beneficiaries.

Just the non-teaching personnel at Lemont-Bromberek Combined School District 113A: 132 employees, 486 retirees.

Those are big numbers and big gaps. You can look them up at www.cookcountytreasurer.com. Click on the purple box labeled “Your Property Tax Overview.” Then search by your property identification number or address, and scroll down to “Highlights of Your Taxing Districts' Debt and Pension.”

The numbers also illuminate one reason why pension funds in Illinois are so drained. Workers are allowed to retire and start collecting benefits at an early age compared with life expectancy rates. While the state instituted a pension reform plan effective Jan. 1, 2011, that pushes workers hired after that date to stay in the workforce longer, workers hired before that date can still, in many cases, retire at age 50 or 55 and start collecting benefits.

Social Security, by comparison, doesn’t pay out full benefits until age 66 for people born in the years around 1950.

The swelling property tax bill of ‘Joe Average’

“It has to become alarming to the person who gets the tax bill,” Pappas says of the new data. “We’re trying to set off the discussion to ‘Joe Average’ who gets his tax bill and says, ‘Wait a minute.’ ”

Nationally, responsible state and local governments plan for maturation, or the narrowing ratio of active workers to retirees. The ratio alone, even if it’s lopsided with more retirees than workers, isn’t automatically worrisome if the pension systems have been fully funded, according to Keith Brainard, research director at the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

Of course, most pension funds in this state remain drastically underfunded.

“Illinois and Chicago and Cook are in a pretty tough position,” Brainard tells us. “It appears urgent. Illinois, generally, the state and most of its political subdivisions, has neglected to meet required pension costs for a long time.”

Will taxpayers demand reforms?

Will the new data drive Chicago, Cook County and Illinois voters to demand pension reforms and lower property taxes?

That depends in part on whether they have all of this in mind when they make that March 1 payment.



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