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'Stop the Bleeding' with State Pension Reform

Letter to the editor

The time for meaningful action on the State’s Pension problem is now. The billions of dollars that saddle the State with an economic pension albatross cannot be solved by shifting the burden to school districts or to local governments as some leaders in Springfield have talked about.

The problem requires structural change. That means that the suggestions that were made by Governor Quinn deserve serious discussion and action. Whether the specific details of his proposals are approved or not, they are meaningful ideas and concepts that need to be considered for adoption. The only way to stop the bleeding of our state’s coffers is to make some real changes that will have a long term effect on the amount of money that has to be paid, not just changing who pays it.

The suggestions for raising the retirement age, increasing the amount that public employees pay towards their pensions, and limiting the annual automatic cost of living increase is the only way that the State can begin to fix the pension problem. These would all be prospective changes and would not diminish or take away any pensions that had already been earned and which are protected by the Illinois constitution.

Giving some choices and options to employees with regard to some other benefits which are not constitutionally protected as an alternative to newly structured pensions is surely another way to avoid some of the constitutional questions which some have raised. No one wants to hurt the employees that a have earned and worked hard for their pensions. The employees and the public employee unions however need to understand that if real changes are not made, and made soon, there may not be a pot from which to pay their pensions, and pension payments to extent money is available may be delayed for months on end just as many vendors and governments have to wait for their payments today. That won’t be much help or comfort to retirees who timely need their monthly checks to make ends meet.

The concept of shifting who pays may reduce the amount that the State has to pay, but the shift to schools or local governments could have dire consequences. As a former school board member and former village trustee and mayor, I appreciate and understand the serious potential impact. At the municipal level for years I saw increases in pension benefits adopted in Springfield, which led to millions of dollars that had to paid by our municipal governments. That meant either tax increases which no one likes to see or significant cuts in local services that could affect public safety or other critical services. That is why the state must make sure to make those needed pension  structural changes for police and fire and other municipal employees when they adopt them for all other public employee pensions.

Likewise if there was a major shift to our local schools of the current state pension obligations, the impact would be similar with either major program cuts and firing of teachers or major real estate tax bill increases which are at current levels already over burdening local taxpayers. If as part of the process of reform the legislature elects to shift some of the states pension burden it must be targeted and focused and fair. That would mean it should only primarily be for pensions of newly hired teachers and employees so school districts can plan accordingly, and possibly for pensions of highly paid administrative personnel which local schools boards directly control.

Moreover the administrative personnel arena has been the area where many districts have given huge salary boosts to bump up pensions; and it would not be unreasonable for the districts to have to be responsible for those pensions. Only such targeted shifts would be fair, and would limit the critical damage that could be done by any type of total shift of burden.

Failure to act promptly on structural changes to the pension systems will only mean that the problem will be augmented. We cannot afford to see the can kicked down the road again as it has been done year after year. Our legislators need to hear our voices, and need to know that it is simply not acceptable not act before they go home. Likewise they need to hear that merely shifting the burden is not fair to their constituents who happen to be taxpayers who will end up paying for the shifts with higher property tax bills or major cuts in services and programs.

Don’t just read this and assume someone else will speak out. Call, email or write your legislators today so they know you agree with me that they must act on this pension problem that continues to grow each day that they fail to act on real meaningful structural changes. If you have some ideas on how they should deal with the problem please share them. They need to hear your ideas!!!!!

Elliott Hartstein

Buffalo Grove

Elliott Hartstein is a former three-term mayor of Buffalo Grove, former village trustee of Buffalo Grove, and a former School Board member of Adlai Stevenson High School District 125 and of Skokie Elementary District 69

mike kay May 21, 2012 at 10:31 PM
These public employees did nothing to cause this problem. How much money and how many payments were deferred to other pay for other things. How many payments did Buffalo Grove to pay for other things? No offense but if this was your pension you wouldn't be saying this
Deadcatbounce May 24, 2012 at 03:41 AM
Come on mike you know that your union supported politicians that supported pension enhancements. One hand washed the other. Teacher friendly Politicians were elected and pensions became more unsustainable in the process. Neither The politicians or teachers cared about the unsustainability as that was a future event. Today is that future. Quick quiz, how many enhancements were there to the teachers pension since 1976?
Abigail May 27, 2012 at 03:46 PM
Does the letter writer have any teachers in his immediate family?
Rick June 02, 2012 at 07:22 PM
I am a member of one of the unions that is going to suffer because of bad decision making in the past. When I became a firefighter I did not even know that there was a pension attached to the job. I was very happy once I found out and have paid nearly 10% of my pay into the pension fund for more the 30 years. I will be 60 this month and should have retired by now but with the way things are going I am afraid to retire. My profession is really a young mans job but I could easily see myself working past 65 as long as I don't get hurt. I'm not sure that the public wants to see a 65 year old pull up on an ambulance call or a house fire but what choice do I have if they take away my pension? Wish me luck I think that I'm going to need it.
BG Citizen September 17, 2012 at 12:57 AM
Mr Harstein, First I'd like to say that i have long respected the impact that you had on the Village of BG. We are a better community because of your leadership. Although I agree that we need meaningful pension reform for the state of Illinois, I truly believe that the rank and file work has been wrongfully vilified in this effort. These are individuals who have dedicate decades of service to the community in order to be vested. Contrast that to the administrators and politicians who only need to serve one term, and in some cases a little asw a few weeks, to receive their full pension for that position. How can that be considered a reasonable contribution towards the fund? in order for pension reform to be MEANINGFUL it must apply to all levels beginning at the top

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