By Anna Lothson
Village President David Pope joined a group of roughly 30 mayors in Chicago Thursday at a news conference led by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to highlight the statewide pension crisis that village and city leaders said is crippling local municipality budgets.
State leaders are currently discussing how to address the roughly $80 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. In hundreds of municipalities around the state there are still a slew of structural issues needing to be addressed by the state Legislature in order to fix them at a local level, officials said.
Pope said although mayors are uniting to speak out against the discrepancies, he wasn't confident those in Springfield are listening.
"We're faced with a fundamental question of whether the Legislature is going to help solve this problem or whether they are going to simply pass off the buck," Pope said in an interview Friday. "I'm hopeful that together representatives at the state level and local level can come together to reform the system."
That's just his hope, however, Pope said.
"It ultimately depends of decision makers in Springfield," he said. "Local governments would generally be more supportive for paying for the cost of pensions if the State would see fit to allow local governments to take the actions necessary to control costs. Unfortunately, there's been a longstanding disconnect between the ability to make decisions regarding pension benefits and the responsibility to have to pay for those benefits."
For example, he said, police and fire pension are funded entirely at a local level but the benefit levels for those pensions are set at the state level, leaving an increasingly underfunded system left to be picked up by taxpayers.
"Hopefully we'll see positive movement in reining in uncontrolled pension growth that is playing an unsustainable tax burden on local residents," Pope said.
He said the pension system has also been jolted by local school boards who've made decisions related to teacher spending levels that inflate pension levels upon retirement. Overall, he said, it's the imbalance in the pension system that's leading to financial shortfalls.
"Both of these circumstances have led to irresponsible decision making by elected leaders, and the question is now whether we have the political will to fix the system," Pope said. "I'm not confident at this point that the political will exists."
Pope said what's needed next is an alignment of responsibility for pension funding obligations. What it boils down to is "fixing the problem or passing the buck," he said.
"We need real leadership on this issue for our collective well-being for the futures of our municipalities as well as our state," Pope said. "The next several weeks will tell whether our leadership is prepared to engage in that or not."