My Suburban Life

Commentary: Voters want pension dilemma fixed

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Western suburbs, IL —If local voters agreed overwhelmingly on one aspect of Tuesday’s election, it was their desire to see lawmakers reform police and firefighter pensions.

A nonbinding advisory referendum on the ballot in many communities asked voters if they wanted the Illinois General Assembly and governor to reform pensions for public-safety employees without further burdening local taxpayers. Of the 21 towns in the western suburbs where some version of the referendum appeared, more than 70 percent of voters responded yes.

The highest approval of western suburbs came from Burr Ridge, where more than 87 percent of voters approved the measure. The smallest margin of approval came from Brookfield and Lyons, with about 73 percent of voters in each town affirming the question.

Interestingly, the one locale where the measure lost was in the Cook County portion of Oak Brook, where it fell by a 2-to-1 margin. According to the Cook County Clerk’s Office, two people there voted against the initiative, and one person voted for it! Meanwhile, the DuPage County side of Oak Brook raised the community’s overall approval of the measure to nearly 87 percent.

Municipalities are bound by state law to contribute a certain percentage to the retirement benefits of public employees. Towns are equally squeezed by the cap on the annual amount by which they can extend their property taxes. This is limited to the rate of the consumer price index or 5 percent, whichever is lower.

Local elected officials are very concerned that they’ll have to make serious cuts to staffing levels or programs to meet their mandated financial obligations. Because they can’t raise substantially more money without the approval of voters, many of them view budget cuts as the only way to comply with state pension requirements.

The referendum on ballots this week sought to send a message to legislators that trouble may be on the horizon. Reflecting the economic times we’re living through, most voters want the state to provide some flexibility in pension laws.

They don’t want municipal services to deteriorate, and they don’t want higher taxes. This must be of some concern to police officers and firefighters, who obviously don’t want to see their pensions diminished.

It could be that future public-safety employees will face reduced retirement benefits. There are no good answers to this dilemma, only a choice between regrettable options. Fire and police representatives, community leaders and residents must engage in frank discussions about what to make of the result of this advisory referendum and how to proceed from here.