Vernon Hills Review

Residents to weigh in on pension reform during election

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An advisory referendum will be placed on the ballot in Vernon Hills this fall asking local voters if they support "meaningful" statewide police and fire pension reform.

On Aug. 2, the Vernon Hills Village Board voted unanimously to pass a resolution to place a referendum on the Nov. 2 general election ballot on the issue of public safety pension reform. The ballot question reads: "Shall the Illinois General Assembly and governor take immediate steps to implement meaningful public safety pension reform which will relieve the extensive burden on local taxpayers?"

Vernon Hills Village Manager Mike Allison said the General Assembly enacted pension reform legislation this spring for other state employees, such as teachers, judges, lawmakers and other state workers.

However, the reforms were not extended to police and firefighter pensions because of a disagreement between municipalities and legislators over some of the language of the public safety reform legislation.

Allison said the purpose of the advisory referendum is to get a sense of where voters stand on the issue and to let legislators know that public safety pension reform is an important issue to local communities.

'Important issue'

"The idea behind it is to say we believe that this is an important issue to the residents of Vernon Hills and that (the legislature) should pass some reforms," he said.

In February, 88 percent of Barrington voters passed an advisory referendum in support of reforming the state's police and firefighter pension system, and a similar ballot question in Lake Forest received over 90 percent support. He said other municipalities in the state are considering similar advisory referendums in hopes of convincing legislators to revisit the issue during the fall veto session in November or December.

The resolution states that between 2007 to 2009, the village's required police pension fund contribution increased by $232,451 or about 25 percent. Because of the escalating pension costs, Vernon Hills and many other communities in the state are being forced to make difficult budget choices, such as cutting vital services on increasing the burden on taxpayers, the resolution states.

"Our costs (for police pensions) in two years went up nearly a quarter of a million dollars," Allison said. "It's a cost issue and it's a huge part of our payroll cost."

Vernon Hills does not have its own fire department so those pension costs are incurred by other agencies, such as the Countryside Fire Protection District and Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Protection District.

Among the proposed pension reform changes that the village would like to see is an increase in the minimum retirement age for police officers from 50 to 55 years and an increase in the number of years officers would have to work before they become eligible for pension benefits. Allison said the statewide public safety reform changes would only affect new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011 and would not affect pensions of existing employees or current retirees.

Trustee Tom Koch supported placing the referendum question on the ballot, but he wondered if the ballot question may be worded too generally to get an accurate picture of how the public stands on the issue.