Police pensions

In Braidwood last week, 82 percent of voters rejected a property tax increase that would have paid for the city's police pensions.

The immediate problem the city faces is that it's only put in enough money to pay half of what it will owe retirees or their families.

And that's with 8 percent of its $3 million budget going to police pensions each year.

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election, Police Chief Rich Girot issued this warning: "If it doesn't pass, sooner or later, the police department could close."

If that sounds like an isolated catastrophe waiting to happen, consider this: Overall pension debt on the state and local level in this country is more than $1 trillion, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The economy is partly to blame, but so too are missed payments and benefit promises that were unreasonable to make.

But what's happening in Kankakee would make the Braidwood problem sound quaint. For every $5 the city spends on its budget, a little more than $1 of it goes to fund its police and fire pensions. That's more than $5 million of the city's $23 million budget.

Meanwhile police pensions are 33 percent funded; fire is 19 percent funded.

What does that mean?

At the rate the city is headed, fully funding the retirement of police officers and firefighters is impossible. Currently, there are 55 retired police officers, or their beneficiaries, taking a pension, while 66 are contributing.

The firefighters' pension is far more skewed: 68 retired firefighters or beneficiaries are drawing benefits; 51 are putting money in.

Barring a situation where those in retirement die in large numbers, all at once, the system is moving toward insolvency.

"You can't tax people enough to pay this bill," said Mayor Nina Epstein. "Structural changes need to be made. People live far longer now. Rules regarding the pension system have not adjusted to that."

The recent update to Kankakee's pension crisis came after the city released its annual audit last week.

According to the 2014 audit, the city fire pension has lost ground in each of the past three years and has dropped from nearly 40 percent funding in 2004. By comparison, the police pension has remained level or gained some traction in the past two years.

However, both remain sharply underfunded. The city police pension should have $53.6 million and the fire fund should be at $48 million.

As in the police chief's warning in Braidwood, the city could in theory shut down its public safety departments. But more likely, it'll just have to shift more money away from other areas of its budget, like public works, to contribute even more to pensions.

"I know we can't change what happened in the 1970s and 1980s, but if this had been funded properly we wouldn't be talking about this," said Det. Sgt. Rich Sims, president of the police pension board. "The system doesn't need to be changed, just fund it properly."

What Sims is talking about is a period during which little money was being put into the retirement accounts of public safety workers.

Amanda Kass, research director the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said police and fire pensions across the state are not adequately funded. Like Sims, she said governmental bodies need discipline when it comes to funding, not changes in the law.

"The problem is when the pension are not funded properly it can snowball and then the problem got compounded by the recession," she said. "What's happened in Kankakee is not unique."