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Cook County also faces pension funding gap, new analysis says
Commissioner says time to act is now

Monday, April 09, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County's pension fund will go broke in 26 years without changes that could include an increase in employee contributions and later retirement ages, according to a new analysis.

The report, done under the direction of county Commissioner Bridget Gainer in her role as chairwoman of the board's pension-oversight panel, shows that it's not just state and city pension funds that have perilous futures.

Even if the county fund generally is in better shape, Gainer said, that doesn't mean the county can continue to ignore a funding gap that had grown to $5.2 billion by the end of 2010. That's seven times the size it was a decade earlier, before a 2003 early retirement plan, rising health care costs, higher life expectancies and fund investment downturns swelled that gap.

"We have to act now because every day you don't do anything, it requires more draconian solutions to solve the problem," Gainer said. "If we act now ... we can make these changes without raising taxes and without really undermining the stability of the benefit."

Gainer hopes the analysis, and a website she plans to launch Monday, will result in a well-thought-out effort to repair the fund that could be ready to present to state lawmakers in time for their post-election November session.

"We're trying to make this a collaborative process," Gainer said. "We want to put all the information out there, give all the facts to everybody — workers, taxpayers, retirees — and say, 'Look, this is where we are. This is when it runs out of money.'"

The effort comes as Mayor Rahm Emanuel is highlighting even more dire problems for city pension funds, in part by launching his own website with a real-time tally of the city's pension funding gap of more than $25 billion.

Gov. Pat Quinn, meanwhile, awaits a report from a pension reform panel. The state's pension gap is about $80 billion.

Gainer noted the county's pension woes differ from those of the state and city. Her report offers a smorgasbord of potential solutions, including having employees pay 9.5 percent — 1 percent more than currently — of their annual wages into the fund, which also would trigger a relatively modest $15 million increase in the county government's annual payment.

The report also proposes lower annual cost-of-living increases, a higher retirement age, slightly less credit for future years worked and basing the pension payments on a percentage of each employee's highest consecutive eight years of salary, rather than the current four.

In exchange, the county would guarantee retirement health benefits. "Right now, health care is something that could go away tomorrow," Gainer said. "There's no protection."

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle appointed Gainer, who has a background in private-sector finance, to head up the county pension panel. Gainer used nearly one-tenth of her district office budget — nearly $30,000 — to pay an expert to help her put the report together.

Gainer has met with union leaders to discuss the pension reform effort and said she plans to start meeting soon with rank-and-file employees.

"You know, this isn't something that is going to be done to county employees," Gainer said. "It's something that is going to be done with county employees."

Laurence Msall, president of the nonpartisan fiscal watchdog Civic Federation, praised Gainer's efforts.

"We think it's very important that the county and other units of government not wait to begin crafting a resolution to the pension crisis," Msall said. "That's all positive. Still, the entire County Board and the president need to be engaged, and then they need to convince the legislature as to the merits of their proposal."


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