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.
Chicago households are on the hook for a combined $63,000 in Chicago-only debt, based on Moody’s calculations. It’s why the city and the school district have been junk rated for years.
Pritzker’s COLA increase runs against what most of Illinois’ political elite already know – COLA cuts are necessary and inevitable at all levels of government. As Greg Hinz said in his review of Wirepoints’ Pension Solutions, “…that juicy perk over time has amounted to megabillions that state government just doesn’t have.”
The COLA hike will cause more financial headaches for Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the COLA increase will cost the city an additional $18 to $30 million a year in pension costs. In all, the perk will force taxpayers to pay an additional $850 million over time.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation that benefits retired Chicago firefighters, rejecting city warnings adding to its already burdensome pension tab could damage ratings and drive up taxes.
The added cost to bring cost-of-living adjustments for all firefighters in tier one up to a simple 3% annual increase despite their birth date amounts to $18 million to $30 million annually and up to $823 million in full by 2055 when the fund is slated to reach a 90% funded ratio.
Pending legislation to do the same for the police fund carries a steeper price tag of up to $90 million annually and $2.6 billion through 2055.
HB 2451 addresses disparate pension benefits among Chicago firefighters. Currently, employees eligible for a pension in the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago (FABF) who were born after January 1, 1966 are granted a 1.5 percent COLA. However, firefighters who may have started on the force the same day, may unfairly receive different benefits based on their dates of birth. The legislation addresses this discrepancy by adjusting the COLA for these firefighters from 1.5 percent to 3 percent.
The legislation eliminates the 30 percent cap on cumulative COLA adjustments. For employees eligible for a 1.5 percent COLA, they would have hit the cap at 20 years. The reforms made in this legislation provides firefighters the ability to plan for themselves and their families.
This is a good time to review who will be impacted as state pension data on active participants in the retirement system has just been updated through December, 2020. There are no dates of birth so it is impossible to get an accurate count as some of those members who have between 18 and 25 years of service may already be age 55 but here is my cost estimate anyway.
If half of those eligible decide to retiree on their 50% pension for an extra 3.5 years that would come to an extra billion dollars coming out of the retirement system which is about double what the OLS estimated as the maximum.
However, there is no significant budgetary reform in the offing, and California’s cities and counties feel no compunction to address the issue. In fact, these days several municipalities are taking steps that will ultimately serve to exacerbate the shortfall by bringing in all of their emergency services “in house,” rather than contracting out emergency services to a private entity.
The rationale typically given for such steps is that doing ambulance and fire services completely in house helps coordinate emergency responses and creates efficiencies, improving services and saving them money.
However, such efforts rarely manage to help towns—or the state, for that matter—to save money. Contracting out ambulance services is typically done by smaller communities that don’t have the demand to support a full-time ambulance crew, which can be expensive—a tricked-out ambulance alone costs over $150,000. Combining with another nearby community generates economies of scale.