Quick Hit Friday October 18th, 2013, 7:25pm

Op-Ed: City Council Progressive Reform Caucus Calls For Action On Chicago's Pension Crisis

The Chicago City Council Progressive Reform Caucus released the following statement on Friday calling on the mayor and council members to face up to the city's pension crisis. 

Chicago’s thousands of employees keep their promise to our city. But will our city keep its promise to them? This is the question the city council and the mayor must face. 

There is plenty of talk about a looming pension crisis. But this is a manufactured crisis. It is the result of decades of failure on the part of city leaders to meet longstanding fiscal obligations. It represents a failure to make timely, regular and full payments into the city’s 7 pension funds. And it is a failure arising from mismanagement and possible corruption in the oversight of those funds.

The city’s past strategy has been to delay payments to the fund to keep that cash available for other expenses. However, the longer you delay, the deeper the hole you dig. 

Neither the present city council nor the mayor created this situation. Nor is this backlog of pension fund payments the fault of any of the city employees or the unions or professional organizations that represent them. 

Pensions are contractually agreed upon obligations. The city of Chicago as an employer is bound to make its regularly scheduled contributions. They are supposed to be on an equal priority basis to any other obligations such as making payroll or paying the city’s other bills. So while neither the unions nor the mayor nor the  council created the problem, it falls to all to arrive at a just solution. 

Who pays if the city defers or defaults on such obligations? No surprise here--it is the taxpayers--especially the homeowners--who will shoulder increases to try to play catch-up. 

The Progressive Reform Caucus proposes that the mayor and the city council face up now to this situation. The longer we wait, the worse the debt will grow. To organize this process, we recommend that the council convene a special panel which includes the representatives of the city’s employees as well as fiscal agencies, fund managers and elected officials, to create a plan to dig out of this mess and ensure a secure retirement for all city employees at all levels. This plan must include identifying new sources of revenue that do not rely on the property tax. This discussion must involve the public. 

Our approach must take into account the long-term fiscal health of the city.  It would be immoral to cut pensions. And it would not affect simply the retirees. Reducing promised retirement income for the thousands of Chicago residents who would be hit by such a move would damage the city’s economic stability. Retirees depend upon these contractually guaranteed benefits for their health and well-being. A reduction in retirement income means they have less money to support small businesses, keep their homes up, and take care of themselves and their families. We submit that this is a quality-of-life impact upon the entire city—not merely upon those directly affected.  Moreover pension-cutting would be a blot on the reputation and credibility of our city and its ability to manage its affairs with integrity.  

Who are the employees affected by the current negligent approach? They are our sanitation workers, firefighters, police, parks and recreation and library staffs, our city services workers--the people who provide you your licenses, your stickers, your permits--in short the people who keep the city working, safe, clean and delivering services and programs. If you want top-notch, well-trained people providing these vital functions, you offer the promise of a secure retirement as part of the benefits of the job. And you can not turn around later and refuse to honor those promises. 

If there was ever an issue on which the mayor and city council members need to work collaboratively and listen attentively to public input, this is it. This is a complex problem which requires an inclusive and respectful stance on the part of elected officials.  The reality is that we will all be impacted by this issue, and therefore we should all have input and work with transparency and openness in order to craft a plan with optimal opportunities for genuine public participation.

Every city employee, from the men and women who fight our fires to the ones who answer our 9-1-1 calls, to the ones who read stories to our kids in the libraries, to those who clean up the streets and alleys and flush out the sewers--all of them protect the quality of life of all of us. How can we do less for them? Time to put our heads together, Chicago, listen to each other, from the firehouse to the schoolhouse to City Hall. It will require discipline, respect and careful planning. But together, we can solve this.

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