An Illinois Circuit Court judge has denied a lawsuit that sought to stop the consolidation of the state’s 650 firefighter and police officer pension funds, rejecting the plaintiff’s claims that a law enacting the move violated the state’s constitution.
In 2019, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that allows for the consolidation of 650 police and firefighter pensions in order to pool their funds into two statewide funds for investment purposes—one for police and one for firefighters. The move is intended to help improve the financial stability of the pension funds and ease pressure on local governments to raise taxes to fund those pensions.
However, in February 2021 18 police and firefighter pension funds, including active and retired members, filed a complaint against Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker, who signed the bill into law. The lawsuit alleged that the consolidation violates two provisions of the Illinois Constitution: the pension protection clause and the takings clause.
The plaintiffs claimed that they had a contractual and enforceable right to exclusively manage and control their investment expenditures and income, including interest dividends, capital gains and other distributions on investments, which they said the consolidation infringed upon.
The unfunded liabilities of Illinois? suburban and downstate public safety pensions rose to $13 billion in the last year of compiled results reported to the state, continuing a 29-year climb that underscores the deep strains on local government budgets.
The unfunded tab for the 295 firefighter funds and 352 police funds outside of Chicago grew to $13 billion in fiscal 2019 from $12.3 billion in 2018 and $11.5 billion in 2017. Police accounted for $7.5 billion of the total and firefighters for $5.5 billion, according to a new report from the state legislature?s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
The rising tab could help the Illinois Municipal League?s case in arguing for lawmakers during their 2022 session to loosen funding requirements.
The League wants a re-amortization of the funding schedule that would extend the target date for achieving 90% funding beyond fiscal 2040, and lower the funding target to 80% from 90%. While both would ease the burdens on governments market participants have warned they are Band-Aid fixes that don?t solve the underlying funding strains.
You may recall earlier this year when the General Assembly passed a bill that Gov. JB Pritzker signed to increase certain pension benefits for Chicago firefighters. The new law is expected to cost Chicago some $850 million and could drop the funded status from what was an already abysmal 18% down to an even-worse 16%.
Well, it appears that Illinois Senate leadership didn’t even bother to talk to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot before mandating that additional burden.
The Chicago Tribune has released Lightfoot email and text messages it obtained on a number of matters. One went from Lightfoot to Senate President Don Harmon. “A courtesy call regarding the fire pension bill would have been helpful, particularly since there is no funding for it,” Lightfoot said. “When that pension fund collapses, I will be talking a lot about this vote.”
A court ruling as soon as this month will help determine the fate of one of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s key plans to ease the massive shortfall in local pension funds across the state. A 2019 law championed by Pritzker would merge about 650 local police and firefighter pensions with assets topping $16 billion into two funds to cut costs and improve returns.
The law set a June 30 deadline for the consolidation of the funds, but many of the local pensions are hesitating or even refusing to merge until they learn the outcome of litigation to block the combining. Three dozen current employees and retirees, along with 18 local retirement plans, filed a lawsuit in February in Illinois circuit court saying the consolidation violates the state constitution.
So far, however, the new Illinois Police Officers’ Pension Investment Fund hasn’t received any assets and expects to begin getting funds around March, said executive director Richard White. About 44% of the 357 downstate and suburban police funds that were supposed to be merged into the bigger pension plan haven’t even responded to requests for information, White said.
As many Contra Costa residents are well aware, the county fire departments have absorbed ambulance services – previously provided by private operators at a lower cost to taxpayers – to pad their already bloated pensions since 2016. What many residents probably don’t know, is that 60 to 80 percent of the fire department’s budget goes to paying off their pension obligations. The California Pension Tracker notes that the market basis pension liability per household is $81,634. That sum surpasses many residents’ annual income. To fund upcoming pension payments that are currently underfunded, fire unions have called for additional tax measures and service redistribution that ultimately leaves county residents at a disadvantage. So, while residents are seeing costs go up, they’re seeing EMS response times and quality of care diminish. That’s just not right.
Coupling a boatload of optimism with a dire warning, Mayor Lori Lightfoot told investors from around the country that Chicago is well positioned to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and is a good place for them to allocate their cash.
But her remarks May 6 were far different on the subject of underfunded city pension funds, a problem that has bedeviled mayors for the past two decades.
Though workers deserve what they’ve been promised, she said, “that promise will not be met” unless Springfield lawmakers come to the table with financial aid or other reforms.
Lightfoot did not use the word “default.” But some financial experts have warned that some of the city’s four pension funds, particularly those covering firefighters and police, may have trouble paying promised benefits within a few years if they don’t get help.
A Harvey, Illinois, pension fund claims it’s entitled to share in the Chicago suburb’s American Rescue Plan funds and wants to block the distribution of aid until a judge decides.
The financially stressed suburb south of Chicago, which has battled over the last decade with its public safety pension funds, the city of Chicago, and bondholders about its obligations, settled a legal dispute with its police and firefighters’ over past due payments in 2018.
The Firefighters Pension Fund is now staking a claim on Harvey’s share of the $350 billion for local, state and tribal governments in the coronavirus relief package President Biden signed in March, arguing Harvey’s share is subject to the 10% claim on city tax funds that flow through the state and are sent directed to the fund the city agreed to in a 2018 settlement.
Workers’ retirement security has declined in an alarming number of Illinois cities. In 2003, just 21 of 175 cities analyzed had less than 60 cents on hand for every dollar they needed to fund future benefits of their city workers. By 2019, 99 of the 175 cities were below 60 percent funded. A 60 percent funding level is often seen as a point of no return from which pension funds can’t recover.
City taxpayers have increasingly paid more to pensions over the past 16 years, and yet the pension shortfalls they are on the hook for are far larger today. Pension contributions of the 175 cities have nearly quadrupled to $960 million in 2019 from $250 million in 2003, and yet local pension shortfalls still tripled to $11.8 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 2003.
Pension costs as a share of city budgets have doubled, crowding out spending on core government services. City pension contributions as a share of general budgets have doubled to 17 percent in 2019 from 8 percent in 2003.
Most local pension funds have turned upside down – they now have more retirees drawing benefits than active workers contributing. In 2003, only 15 cities had more pensioners drawing benefits than active workers making contributions into the fund. In 2019, that number rose to 112 cities.
House Bill 2451 eliminates a formula based on birth date that provided lower pension COLAs to certain retired firefighters. As a result of the new law, all retirees that are considered “Tier 1” members of the FABF will now receive a 3% COLA annually on their pension, with no cumulative cap. Before House Bill 2451, retired firefighters in Tier 1 would have received a 1.5% COLA, subject to a 30% cumulative cap, if born on or after January 1, 1966. Members of the FABF receive Tier 1 benefits if hired before January 1, 2011, while those hired on or after January 1, 2011 receive less generous Tier 2 pension benefits.
One potentially advantageous effect of House Bill 2451 is that it forces immediate recognition of 3% COLAs for Tier 1 members. The state law governing Chicago firefighter pension COLAs has been amended on several occasions in the past to alter the birth date that would determine eligibility of a Tier 1 retiree for a 3% COLA versus a 1.5% COLA. The most recent such change occurred in 2016, when the law was updated to provide a 3% COLA to all Tier 1 firefighters born before January 1, 1966, compared to January 1, 1955, before the change. That change, in addition to several other provisions, triggered a roughly $227 million (4.5%) increase to the actuarial accrued liability reported by the FABF as of the December 2016 actuarial snapshot.
California’s total estimated pension liability is something like $1 trillion. To balance its books, Sacramento had to get money from taxpayers in Florida, South Dakota, Utah and, other, better-managed states (through the COVID-19 stimulus) to close the gap.
Whether it will be enough to stop municipal fire departments from bringing private ambulance and medical services “in-house” is yet to be seen. Hopefully, it will — which would be a good thing for taxpayers and people in need.
Otherwise, the pattern of using federal reimbursements for services provided to cover the losses in underfunded public employee pension plans will continue, much to the determinant of taxpayers.
Anybody who’s been following Chicago knows the last thing the city needs is more debt. Chicagoans are being swamped by pension debts, already the biggest per-capita burden of any major city in the country. By signing the new legislation into law, Pritzker has shoved more debt onto ordinary Chicagoans.
Not surprisingly, Moody’s has called the action “credit negative…because it will cause the city’s reported unfunded pension liabilities, and thus its annual contribution requirements, to rise.”
Two important facts to note about the city’s pension shortfalls. First, Chicago officially says its four city-run pension funds – police, fire, municipal and laborers – are short by some $31 billion. But Moody’s puts the number at nearly $47 billion using more realistic, market-based assumptions.
Second, those debt numbers don’t include the Chicago Public Schools. When you add its $23 billion (Moody’s, 2018) pension shortfall, the total burden on Chicagoans for Chicago-only debts jumps to $70 billion. Divvy that between Chicago’s 1.04 million households and you’re talking about $67,000 in debt each. And that number far underestimates the real household burden considering nearly 20 percent of the city’s population don’t have the means to contribute a dime to that pension shortfall.