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Mayors from various corners of Illinois agree with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s comments: Illinois’ mandates on pensions are unsustainable.
In an August interview with the editorial board of Crain’s Chicago Business, the freshman Chicago mayor called Illinois’ state-mandated sweeteners to public worker pensions “unsustainable” and called on lawmakers to take action in the coming veto session.
She immediately faced criticism and was forced to clarify her statement, telling Crain’s that “We must secure the retirement of our working people by partnering with our allies from the state to identify progressive revenue streams. Mayor Lightfoot remains opposed to a constitutional amendment on pensions."
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In her initial interview, she said Chicago wasn’t alone in struggling to pay for pension promises mandated by state lawmakers, that cities like Rockford and Peoria are all under pressure.
"She absolutely is right and we're not talking about a light coming through a tunnel a long ways away,” Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said. “We're talking about a freight train that's just around the block. This isn't unique to Chicago and Peoria. Literally every municipality in the state is under the same type of pressure."
Peoria has seen dozens of cuts to police and fire personnel and is projected to send all of its property tax revenue to pension funds in 2020.
The city of Alton was forced to sell their water treatment plant to make a pension contribution that would have otherwise resulted in what Mayor Brant Walker called “catastrophic” cuts to public services.
"There will be a financial line crossed and you'll see a line crossed where it comes down to cuts in public safety that will be untenable," Walker said. “The benefits are given in Springfield with no say from the cities, and the cost is passed on to the cities. Places like that, where they have this legacy cost, they are unsustainable.”
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara says it’s not just the benefits received by pensioners that are mandated by the state, but numerous other rules that cities must abide by that leave them hamstrung in the ways they’re able to manage their legacy debts.
“We are mandated on what we pay and where we invest those funds,” he said. "I want to be crystal clear; anyone who has signed up and was made a promise and served our citizens deserve what they were promised but it's certainly 100 percent unsustainable. Anyone who says otherwise isn't based in reality."
Rockford has been diligent in making its pension payments, only missing the mark once at the height of the recession, McNamara said. The city was recently advised to cut police and fire services due to pension costs.
Attempts to alter established pension agreements have been denied by Illinois judges, who have interpreted the state’ constitutional pension protection language to be absolute.
Lightfoot announced last month that the city is facing a $838 million budget gap and will be required to pay more than $1 billion in pension contributions in just a few years.
"I can't even fathom what Mayor Lightfoot is dealing with, just because of their inability to address this," Ardis said.