Last week we had an Oak Park village trustee utter the word bankruptcy during a discussion of next year’s municipal budget and the consequences of pension obligations going forward. And while that was stunning to hear, we didn’t find it alarmist.
Reality is that for the same reasons Illinois’ state government is paralyzed by pension issues for its current and retired staff and by its obligations to teachers across most of the state, there are parallel worries at every municipal government when it comes to police and fire, and other staff pension obligations.
Pensions have been overpromised, underfinanced and then KOd by the grim economic realities of recent years. This is bollix has been brewing for decades, ignored during good times and buried every time sincere critics raised concerns.
Now it is here. Right here. In front of us. And the solutions, both at the state and the local level, are painful and likely unfair both to those in line for pensions and for strapped taxpayers who are ultimately going to pay more.
Add in the concept gaining steam in Springfield to gradually offload teacher pension obligations to local school districts and you have the potential for screaming pain ahead. That local schools should very slowly come to shoulder some portion of teacher retirement costs makes sense to us. The lack of responsibility for any pension costs over the decades contributed to unrealistic payouts being approved by local schools with the costs being shifted to the state.
Now, however, Democrats in Springfield want to unburden the state of this obligation. Republicans are resistant. And the likely outcome — watch for it when the legislature convenes for a single day next week — is more posturing and failing.
We recall a village board decision a few years back not to add permanent firefighter positions. The reason, Village President David Pope said, wasn’t that Oak Park couldn’t afford the salaries at the time but that it couldn’t afford to take on the pension obligations in the long run. These are tough, pragmatic choices that need to be made and haven’t been made in the past.
Every time you read a Springfield story about pension costs and their impact on providing a full range of services we’ve come to expect, remember that there is a similar story in Oak Park, in River Forest. And if Springfield offloads teacher pensions, then in Districts 90, 97 and 200, too.