Nothing tangible was before the City Council as they discussed the “pension-funding goal” at the Dec. 14 City Council meeting, and the ultimate decision of the Council was to hold a workshop with pension trustees to work toward solutions to the funding crisis.

The goal, one of 12 set by City Council for discussion and clarification to frame their decisions over the next few years, “was one without a specific direction,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

The City, like all municipalities in Illinois, must make annual contributions for the retirement, injury and widow/family benefits for police officers and firefighters. By state mandate, the pension funds must be fully funded by the year 2033. The City’s unfunded liabilities in the two funds are calculated by the City’s actuary – at present, Gabriel, Roeder Smith – in March of each year. As of March 1 of this year, said Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons, the total unfunded pension liability was $158 million.

“What information do we have to work from?” asked Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey. “We’re in debt – how many million dollars? The only thing I can think to discuss is, ‘How are we ever going to pay for this?’”

Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said, “I had asked the Assistant City Manager to give us an idea of what we think the trend is for the next 19 years. As our budget shrinks, the yearly amount we owe increases. If you project 10-15 years, you have a collision that is going to take place.” He said the City should “try to find relief from the state or maybe – as was suggested in one of the budget workshops – have civilians provide some of the services we now have sworn officers providing.”

Mr. Lyons said aldermen were in possession of the actuary’s report, which included a 30-year projection of costs. “Pension costs will grow faster than our budget costs,” he said.

“The burden is on you, City Manager,” Ald. Jean-Baptiste said, “to help us find a solution. We have to face some truth – and that truth is that our ability to pay will become more and more difficult.”

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said he agreed. “What we really need to be doing is questioning the present system. I would like for City staff and the Council to look for alternatives to the present system. We’re going to have to make some changes. … I’m not looking at taking away anything anyone is entitled to, but maybe we should be getting away from [making] ‘defined benefits’ [to the pensions and getting] to ‘defined contributions.’”

Ald. Rainey said, “That would be saving money going forward, but that doesn’t help us with what we owe now.”

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said she had recently discussed the pension problem with other mayors. “The options [seem to be] pension reform or reconfiguring the ways police and fire services are provided in the community. We can either move toward pension reform or look at reconfiguring ways to provide services – such as looking at regional fire services, ones that don’t stop at a city’s borders.”

Ald. Rainey said she would like to meet with the trustees of the pension funds to see if they have any ideas about how to address the funding crisis. Mr. Bobkiewicz said he would “look at dates for a workshop with the pension trustees.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...