Emanuel Wants State Support for $600 Million Chicago Pension Crisis

The mayor addresses looming retirement payments for city police and firefighters

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is finally talking about how he plans to address the looming $600 milion pension bill for police and firefighters.

In an interview with Crain's Chicago Business, Emanuel posed two solutions for shoring up the woefully deficient police-and-fire pensions: 1) negotiating a retirement deal with labor unions; and 2) pushing legislation that would cover not only Chicago, but the whole of Illinois.

"Evanston, Aurora, Libertyville — they all have public safety issues," said Emanuel. "Public safety is a statewide problem and needs a statewide resolution."

On Monday, after much will-he-or-won't-he bluster, Gov. Pat Quinn signed Emanuel's bill to restructure two other cash-strapped city pensions for laborers and municipal employees. The plan, which increases worker contributions by 29 percent and cuts benefits, came under criticism from Quinn for an initial pitch to pay for the reforms by raising property taxes $50 million over a five-year period. (Backing down, the mayor said he would seek out other options.)

The financial crisis involving police and fire retirement systems, meanwhile, is projected to set in around 2016 or 2017, giving officials a longer grace period to hammer out a workable agreement.

"My goal is to make sure everyone has a retirement check to rely upon," Emanuel told Crain's, adding that "each agreement, while pushing the boulder up (the hill), builds momentum for the next one."

"Unlike everything I've done before, this (pensions for public-safety workers) is a statewide issue that affects every municipality. ... this is not limited to Chicago," he said.

Given his success in Springfield this week, Emanuel could be a key deal-maker in ongoing -- and go-nowhere -- efforts by suburban and downstate mayors to push for public safety pension reform.

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