It's an issue that doesn't get much play in political campaigns, but it could have major impacts on how Bloomington and Normal governments operate for decades to come.
We're talking about pensions for police and firefighters. Local governments have to pay them. Their costs keep escalating and they could soon crowd out funding for core services.
Candidates in the April 6 municipal election acknowledge public safety pensions are a problem. They say they have to talk about it.
“I would certainly be willing to have those conversations,” said Bloomington Ward 9 candidate Tom Crumpler.
“We have to be able to continue talking with one another in a way that people don’t walk away in a huff,” said Bloomington Ward 7 incumbent Mollie Ward.
“To the extent that we choose not to fund in a given year, it increases the need to do even more in subsequent years,” noted Normal town council candidate A.J. Zimmerman.
Solutions are hard to come by. The Town of Normal has restructured some debt and paired sales tax money with property tax revenue to cover pension payments, but that's a stopgap.
Bloomington also uses mostly property tax money to pay for pensions, and it uses utility tax surpluses. But the city projects that reserve will be wiped out in two years.
The city's police and fire pension costs are projected to jump 17% next year.
Bloomington Ward 5 candidate Patrick Lawler said the city is reasonably well positioned to handle pension cost spikes, at least in the short term.
“We have built up our reserves a lot in recent years. The general fund is in good shape,” Lawler said. “I think as we go forward, we just need to try to maintain the financial position we have.”
Bloomington Ward 5 candidate Nick Becker takes a more dim view of the city's fiscal management. He said police and fire safety must come first.
“I believe that we have an obligation that we haven’t met,” Becker said. “As a person, I make a commitment, I make my obligation.”
Bloomington's budget policy is to fully fund public safety pensions by 2040. That's better than the state mandate of 90% funded in two decades. The city's pensions are only about 50% funded now.
One way to boost funding is to raise more revenue. None of the Twin City council hopefuls suggested higher taxes as a solution.
Normal council candidate Scott Preston said Illinois' property taxes already are too high, adding the town must find a way to keep it from getting higher.
Several council hopefuls said local government will simply have to spend less on other things to meet pension obligations.
Normal council candidate Steve Harsh said the town could stop offering business incentives and hiring consultants.
“The town needs to get their unnecessary and out-of-control spending under control,” he said, adding public safety pensions also should move from a defined benefit model for new hires.
Normal council candidate Karl Sila said the town has to separate needs from wants.
In Bloomington, Ward 9 council hopeful Jim Fruin said it's time the city has a hard conversation with the public.
“Is there anything we can give up?” Fruin asked. “Off the top of my head, I would say I don’t see anything the public is willing to give up.”
Fruin suggests the city could explore privatizing trash and recycling services as a way to save money. The city looked into it previously, but decided against it.
Bloomington council candidate Willie Holton Halbert said the city has to get creative and that includes negotiating with the police and fire unions to save money.
Bloomington Ward 7 candidate Kelby Cumpston poses a long-term answer. He said the city could cut its public safety pension bill by putting fewer cops on the streets and use social workers to handle mental heatlh calls.
“I think that would lead to having less police officers on the force, so I do think there would be savings long term and liability savings as well for the city long term,” Cumpston said.
Several council candidates said public safety pensions are a problem Springfield has to fix.
Normal council incumbent Kevin McCarthy said he has lobbied for the state to extend what he calls an “arbitrary” 2040 deadline for 90% funding. McCarthy said then-Gov. Bruce Rauner was against it. McCarthy said Gov. JB Pritzker seems willing to listen.
“The tune is changing,” McCarthy said. “We have a different administration who is sensitive to what is going on in municipal governments and the burden we have on pensions.
“That must get addressed. It has to.”
McCarthy said the legislature has offered some help. In 2019, the state consolidated hundreds of public safety pensions. The move is expected to increase investment returns.
Normal Town Council incumbent Chemberly Cummings said she also wants to see the 2040 funding deadline extended. Retirees are living longer, which is a another reason public pensions costs are so high, she said.
“We need to seriously look at do we change the retirement age? That’s not just for the town, that’s something more at a federal level to have the conversation,” Cummings said.
Normal council candidate Brad McMillan also said the town should push state lawmakers to make changes.
Several candidates didn't venture a guess for how to fix the problems. Bloomington's Sheila Montney and Normal's Donna Toney both said they need to do more research on the issue.
Normal town council candidate David Paul Blumenshine denied multiple requests for a WGLT interview.
Election Day is April 6.
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