Naperville Sun

Council adds pension reform to the ballot

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A question to hit the ballot this November in Illinois will look something like this:

"Should the Illinois General Assembly and the governor immediately pass meaningful police and fire pension reform that will reduce the future funding obligation on local taxpayers, now that the General Assembly has reformed pensions for all other public employees?"

The ballot question will be advisory only and stems from the city's involvement with Pension Fairness for Illinois Communities, a group lobbying on behalf of more than 60 municipalities for pension reform.

"One of their requests is that we get municipalities from around the state to put wording like this on the ballot," said City Manager Doug Krieger.

The group, he said, is hoping these kinds of questions will put pressure on the state Legislature to return to the problem of fire and police pensions in its veto session in the fall. "This is kind of the public education portion."

"I don't think it's healthy for our town to go against the system our police and firefighters have right now," said Councilman Paul Hinterlong, who added that the responsibility for fixing the pension problem lies in Springfield. "I don't know if we have to go to these extremes."

But most debate on the question centered on not whether to put a pension reform question on the ballot but how, with some members of the council arguing for stronger language alluding to the unsustainability of the current pension system.

"It is unsustainable," said Councilman Doug Krause. "By 2033, we gotta come up with $50 million," he said, referring to a deadline set to have public pensions fully funded.

No representatives from the city's fire or police unions spoke at Tuesday night's meeting, but Don Bisch, president of the Naperville Police Pension Board, said he'd be launching an education campaign to inform voters from the police persepective.

"We believe that the question is totally loaded," Bisch said. "Ask a taxpayer if they want to lower their tax burden, and what are they going to say?"

Rick Sanders, president of Naperville Professional Firefighters Local 4302, found fault in the question's comparison between police and firefighters and other state employees.

"The police and fireman's job is a job completely different than anywhere else," Sanders said. "We're willing to put our lives on the line."

And both fire and police pension representatives suggested better funding over reform.

"They can do a bond like any other capital improvement project. They could increase revenue streams. They could kick (the state deadline to fully fund the pension) out to 2049," he said. "They're not interested in that."

"Over nine percent of our salaries goes into our pension, so we've always funded our part 100 percent," said Sanders. "The city's not been putting in what they should have, and now, with the bad returns, they're saying it's unsustainable."

In March, the General Assembly voted to reform 13 of the state's pension systems, including all state employees but only downstate fire and police, the group to which Naperville's fire and police forces belong. The reforms created a two-tier pension system, in which current employees could keep their current plans, but new hires will only be offered stricter pensions.

The state reforms for new hires also include caps on salaries that could be used to figure a pension, ends "double-dipping" in which employees could be rehired by the state and receive two pensions, and increases retirement age to 67.

Naperville council members designed the question with those kinds of reforms in mind.

In a council workshop held in February, city staff tallied the bill, claiming that owning a $400,000 house meant paying roughly $140 of your tax bill towards police and fire pensions in Fiscal Year 2009.

In total, pensions contributions, including police, fire and all other city employees, constituted nearly a quarter of the city's tax levy.

The question was added to the ballot by a vote of 7 to 2, with council members Robert Fieseler and Hinterlong voting against.