In Illinois, even the best-funded public pension systems aren't well funded at all.
Lawmakers have known about this growing crisis for more than two decades but still refuse to act.
It's a head scratcher that's going to devastate communities and leave future public retirees receiving just pennies on their pension dollars.
First, a quick review:
- More than 40 percent of Illinois' cities and villages have municipal pension systems with less than 75 percent of the money needed to fully fund their obligations.
- Eleven percent – municipal pension systems in 73 incorporated towns in the state – are underfunded by more than 50 percent, meaning they have less than half the money available to pay future pension costs for current employees.
- Five percent – 32 Illinois municipalities – have less than 25 percent of the necessary funds available. That's a full-on crisis.
Believe it or not, these municipal pension systems – which cover local public employees not including police officers, firefighters or teachers – collectively are the best funded in the state.
That's right. They're the best.
Many of the more than 600 pension systems that cover local police officers and firefighters are much worse off.
Municipal public safety pension systems outside of Chicago are funded at 58 percent of their total obligations, according to a report by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Thirty percent have less than half the funds available to meet future obligations.
Enforcing a 2010 state law, the state Comptroller's Office began garnishing the city of Harvey's tax revenue earlier this year to make up for shortfalls in its police pension fund. As a result of losing the revenue, the shrinking city of fewer than 25,000 people laid off 40 police officers and firefighters.
Next in line for garnishment was North Chicago. Dozens more face similar action.
"In most cases, the promises granted to workers have grown so much that cities have been forced to choose between funding pensions and funding basic operations," Wirepoints wrote in a recent analysis about Illinois' pension crisis. "Or between funding pensions and paying for their workers. Or between funding pensions and taking care of their roads."
Of course, the crisis doesn't end with municipal and local public safety pensions.
There's also the state of Illinois and its five public pension systems – the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS), the General Assembly Retirement System (GARS), the State Employees' Retirement System (SERS), the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) and the Judges' Retirement System (JRS).
The state maintains these five pension systems are underfunded by about $130 billion. But credit ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service puts the liability at more than $200 billion, more than five times the state's annual budget.
Anyone who sees the data must realize this is a crisis that can't be ignored. So why aren't state lawmakers acting?
“Then they'd be forced to pay all the bills that are due," Wirepoints' Ted Dabrowski said. "It's going to take more than North Chicago and Harvey for them to act."
Dabrowski pointed to the Chicago police and fire pension funds as a potential trigger. As of 2017, the city's police pension system was funded at less than 25 percent. Without a bailout or reforms, Chicago could face cuts at a much greater magnitude than Harvey.
"They’re the ones we have to keep our eyes on," Dabrowski said. "Politicians won’t be able to avoid that one."
Sadly, I agree with him.
It's going to take more communities on the verge of collapse before politicians start doing their jobs.