CHICAGO

Cook County Pensions In Very Bad Shape: New Report Finds Funding Gap Will Grow

04/09/2012 01:28 pm 13:28:52 | Updated Apr 09, 2012

While many in Illinois already knew about the state's pension woes, a recent report indicated the county's pension funds could be empty in 26 years.

A new analysis led by Bridget Gainer, chairwoman of the board's pension oversight panel, found that Cook County's pension funding gap has ballooned since 2000, hitting $5.2 billion by the end of 2010, according to NBC Chicago.

That $5.2 billion figure, an estimate that excludes rising demand from all of 2011 and early 2012, is seven times the size of the fund gap in 2000, the Chicago Tribune reports. Compounded by health care costs, unemployment numbers and life expectancies that have all grown in the past decade, the report shows it will get much worse without reform.

Proposed changes to absorb the county's debt include increasing the retirement age by 5 years, reducing the benefit multiplier rate and increasing employee contributions by 1 percent, according to OpenPensions.org, a website that compiles data on the subject launched by Gainer's office Monday.

While not as severe as the deficiencies facing the city's pension funds, which top $25 billion, and the state's gap approaching $80 billion, the moves proposed to correct Cook County's pension shortfalls don't sit well with some retirees and legislators.

"Previous legislators and previous governors even awarded taxpayer funded health insurance benefits to themselves and 82,000 retirees, where 90 percent of them pay nothing on their insurance premiums," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said Feb. 22, 2012, according to a Tribune editorial. "This lack of fiscal accountability has cost us dearly today."

Recent findings by the Illinois Policy Institute paint an even grimmer portrait of the pension crisis in Illinois and Cook County specifically. The state has promised nearly $44 billion in health benefits to retired government employees over the next 30 years, but has not set aside funds for future payments, allowing unfunded liabilities to grow two and a half times faster than state revenues.

"If left unreformed, [these unfunded liabilities] will work in tandem with rising pension costs to dramatically cut government services," warns the report, issued at the end of February.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently debuted a new city website, "Retirement Security: Honesty and Solutions," to help keep track of the city's pension debt. It currently predicts that city taxpayers will be responsible for $108 billion of pension debt by 2017 accululated for the state, county, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

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