Facing growing financial problems, local leaders from across the state hope coming together will pressure state lawmakers to make significant changes on pension funds slated for police and firefighters.

Facing growing financial problems, local leaders from across the state hope coming together will pressure state lawmakers to make significant changes on pension funds slated for police and firefighters.


The Pension Fairness for Illinois Communities coalition introduced a plan today that would revamp the public safety pension funds.


The coalition calls for requiring police officers and firefighters to pay more for their retirement plans and pooling 640 public pension funds into one plan. Current public safety employees would not see benefits change under the coalition proposal.


Coalition members including mayors from several cities say their government pension contributions keep climbing. In Springfield, for example, the city contributed more than $11.5 million to police and firefighter pensions in 2008 - up from less than $7 million in 2004.


"The retirement benefits that have been mandated by the state legislature have caused so many of our municipal governments to be really right on the verge of bankruptcy and just jeopardizing the financial security and the stability of our communities," Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin said at a Statehouse news conference.


He said almost all of the property taxes collected in Springfield go to police and fire pension funds.


Getting support from police and firefighters though may be tricky. They receive 75 percent of their final year salary after 30 years of service when they are 50 years old.


"They (officers) can take a bankrupt system and we can add more people to it, which is just more people that aren't going to get their benefits or they can take a look at making sure the plan is fair and equitable that they can rely on getting those benefits 30 to 40 years from now," Davlin said.


In a statement, the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois fired back that poor city investment decisions and predictions used to fund the pension systems - not benefits - are the real problem.


"It is not honest for politicians to suggest that pension benefit increases have caused the problem," the group said. "It shifts attention from the real problem: too many local governments have diverted employer pension contributions to pay for local government services that do not improve public safety."


Chris Canning, village president of Wilmette, said data from a pension report from the legislature's Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability proves municipalities are paying more into the pension system.


"What we are telling the legislature because it's true is we now have to make a decision whether we are funding pensions or whether we are cutting services or laying off people to pay for those pension benefits," Canning said.


Leaders of both chambers' pension committees were open to changes.


"Whether at the state level or the local level we are facing tough times and there are only certain options that exist," said Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago. "We either have to look at how we can implement some reforms or if there is not enough money to employ everybody, there'll be some rifts."


Rep. Kevin McCarthy, an Orland Park Democrat, said he would support a two-tiered pension system, which he has pushed before at the state level to create slimmer pension offerings for new hires.


"I hope they can help me by getting some of their representatives and senators to support that," he said.


Matt Hopf can be reached at 217-782-3095 or Matt.hopf@sj-r.com.