Editorial | An ugly pension update

Editorial | An ugly pension update

The municipal pension casualty list continues to grow.

In early July, The News-Gazette posed the following question:

"It's Harvey and Peoria today. Who will it be tomorrow?"

Here's the answer — Galesburg. Others will follow.

Think of this state's massive municipal pension problem as a snowball rolling down a steep hill that picks up size and speed every foot along the way. Ultimately, it will grow so large and roll so fast that everything in its way will be flattened.

That's what is happening now.

The July reference concerned the city of Peoria, which faced budget cuts caused by skyrocketing pension costs. City officials there were considering a variety of cost-cutting measures because 85 percent of Peoria's property tax revenues were going to pay the municipal pensions program, leaving the remainder to fund city services.

Last week, city officials sent temporary and permanent layoff notices to unionized non-emergency personnel. Other union employees opted for across-the-board furloughs rather than layoffs.

Meanwhile, in Galesburg, city officials say that 67 percent of property tax revenue there went for pensions in the 2017-18 fiscal year, and that number will jump to 69 percent for the fiscal year that began on July 1.

That's up from 44 percent of property tax revenues going for pensions in 2010. The trend is as clear as it is threatening to the city's ability to fund traditional services for its residents.

"... it's really killing the city. We wouldn't be having (a) conversation like, how in the world do we fund a community center,' if our pension payments were more manageable," Galesburg's city manager said.

The irony surrounding municipal pension woes is that the money goes to support pension benefits for retirees at the expense of many, including current employees.

The president of the AFSCME local in Peoria noted that "in 2008, city membership (at AFSCME) was over 200. Now we have 112 members."

There will be fewer than that sooner than later.

Peoria city officials proposed employees take four furlough days before Veterans Day in November to spread the sacrifice evenly among employees.

The Peoria Journal-Star reports that the electricians' union approved the furlough plan. But union brotherhood didn't count for much with the AFSCME and Teamsters Union.

AFSCME rejected the furlough plan, a move that cost 11 members their jobs. The Teamsters also rejected furlough days, the result being that 16 of them face temporary layoffs that will last until the snow season begins.

Wirepoints, a political research organization, reports that police and fire pension woes run "from East St. Louis to Rockford and Quincy to Danville" and add up to a $10 billion underfunding problem.

Champaign and Urbana's police and fire pensions are relatively well-funded — all of them at the 70 to 80 percent level. But Danville's face serious funding problems.

What's especially striking about this problem is the extent to which those public officials not directly affected by this contagion are ignoring the problem.

What have any of the Democratic and Republican candidates for statewide office said about it? Has there been even a peep on the subject from legislative candidates?

There's no question it's a tough issues. But ignoring the problem will only make it worse, as past history has demonstrated.

Eventually, as more and more communities are swallowed up by pension obligations, it will be impossible to ignore.

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