By Benjamin Yount Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – Pot holes and even re-election bids had to wait Tuesday for dozens of Illinois mayors, as the local leaders flooded the Illinois Capitol to plead with lawmakers to change the retirement rules for cops and firefighters.
More than a dozen mayors from Rockford to Carbondale came together to push for a package of pension reforms that they say are the only way to stave-off bankruptcy.
"Unless we reform the system to curb escalating pensions costs, many towns are going to go broke." said Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole.
The southern Illinois city leader said lawmakers cannot continue to sweeten benefits for local workers and expect that cities and towns will continue to cover the costs.
Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey said his city is having to choose between paying retired officers and firefighters and keeping cops on the street.
"A few years ago we had 305 sworn officers. If [pension reform] doesn't happen this veto session in 2011 we'll be down to 250 police officers in a community of over 155,000 people, one of the highest crime rate cities."
The mayors want pension changes for new police officers and firefighters. The retirement age would be raised from 50 to 60. Retirees would only cash out their maximum benefits after 35 years on the job, and cities would be allowed to cap a maximum pension payout.
A group of retired police officers and firefighters say those changes would be dangerous and wouldn't save that much. The Public Safety Employee Coalition adds that the reforms don't factor in other costs like Social Security benefits and the cost of health insurance.
There is also likely to be plenty of opposition from lawmakers who don't want to be the one to vote to "take a pension away" from cops or firefighters.
Morrissey from Rockford said the voters that elected him would elect a lawmaker who is that brave.
"If the headline…reads 'Legislators Strip Firemen and Policemen's Benefits' our constituents would say it's about time."
Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin said when people see how a retired cop or firefighter is living, and then look at their 401(k), they will certainly understand.
"Your pension plan pales in comparison to what we're proposing. Certainly there are changes [for police officers and firefighters] but it's still a pension plan that is second to none in the state of Illinois."
And Davlin is quick to say all retirees and even the officers and firemen on the job will keep the benefits they currently have.
Illinois lawmakers approved similar pension changes for teachers, university workers, state employees, judges and future lawmakers last year. Those plans are all paid for by the state. Local cities and villages have to pay the costs for police and fire retirements.
Davlin said lawmakers know the need to scale back retirement benefits, he hopes they see the need to act quickly.
"They want to make sure there is a pension benefit that is going to be paid to firefighters and police officers in 10 or 15 or 20 years. And without [these] reforms I think they understand that there is a great possibility that it's not going to be there."