Report shows local pension debt continues to balloon as Illinois lawmakers seek solutions


A new report shows public safety pension debt for municipalities across Illinois is getting worse and some are worried there’s not enough focus on bringing about solutions.

Wirepoints President Ted Dabrwoski presented the report Wednesday at a news conference alongside statehouse Republicans. The report looked at various metrics of public safety pension health and local budgets. When reviewing 175 of the state’s largest municipalities, excluding Chicago, there was an alarming trend.

“In 2003, based on the metrics we looked at, just seven cities failed,” Dabrowski said of the grade Wirepoints gave city pension plans. “By 2019, 102 cities had failed.”

Among the metrics used were the police and firefighter pension funding ratios, the city’s pension debt per household, pension contributions and ratio of city contributions to those made by employees.

No city in the report scored better than a “C” grade. Peoria was the worst off in the report, having gone from a “D” letter grade in 2003 to a letter grade of “F” for 2019.

Peoria-area state Sen. Win Stoller, R-Germantown Hills, said the city is already using nearly all its share of property taxes to cover the growing pension debt, which diverts funds from services taxpayers demand.

“And the more that we rob the resources from them just for this pension problem because we continue to ignore it, the more people are going to leave our state,” Stoller said.

Not far behind Peoria was Rockford, which went from a “C” letter grade to an “F” over 16 years worth of data. State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, said the city’s pension costs ballooned from $7 million to $23 million in 16 years, and that needs to reverse.

“There are solutions out there,” Sosnowski said. “We need to reverse this trend. We need to get back to an economy that people can embrace, they want to live here, they want to stay here, their kids want to stay here and this state can grow.”

Sosnowski and other Republicans highlighted the state’s continued population loss, as is evident in recent data released by the U.S. Census.

Separately, state Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, said Democrats know the pension problem exists.

“I’m confident that a lot of us in the chamber, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, are willing to talk to the Speaker and say, ‘Hey, pension reform is needed, what does that look like,’” West said.

West said he’d support subject matter hearings to bring all parties to the table, from lawmakers to labor groups and even the private sector, to find the best solutions to address the pension problem.

Dabrowski suggested lawmakers let voters decide on changing the state constitution’s pension protection clause, allow government consolidations, and other reforms to reduce the burden. If not, he said local governments should be allowed to declare bankruptcy.

“Illinois’ top-down, one-size-fits-all pension mandates leave city officials with few options but to raise taxes, slash services or endanger the retirements of city workers,” Dabrowski said.

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