Chicago unions and public employees filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block pension changes coming in 2015 that would reduce future COLA increases and require workers to pay more toward their retirement.
In a newly released commentary, rating agency Fitch says the lawsuit was expected. But it also demonstrates the difficulty of making changes to pension benefits in a state that protects them fiercely.
Tuesday’s legal challenge to Chicago’s recent pension reform plan was expected and underscores the difficulty the city faces in its efforts to put its pension plans on firmer footing. Illinois affords particularly strong legal protection to pension benefits.
If the litigation succeeds and changes to the cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and employee contributions are struck down (and no replacement legislation is passed), the city would likely revert back to the lower, statutorily based payments, as annual payments on an actuarially sound basis would rise dramatically. These increases would occur in the context of a statutorily required $538 million increase in contributions for the city’s other two pension systems (police and fire) in 2016. The city has not yet said how the increased pension costs will be accommodated, but Fitch Ratings believes they threaten to crowd out other governmental priorities and remain a formidable challenge to the city’s financial equilibrium.
The city benefits from a strong local economy and enjoys broad home rule authority to raise revenues. However, increasing pension costs are a common problem among Chicago-area governments and funding these increases will likely place a considerable stacked burden on the area’s resource base.
If the new plan is upheld, it would require significant payment increases from the city, approximately half of which are expected to be funded by increased property taxes and half by budgetary savings. The city plans to gradually increase its revenues for pension payments, which may include property taxes, by $50 million (approximately 6%) annually for five years before reaching the target increment of $250 million in the fifth year.
According to Fitch, Chicago’s pension plans carry a collective funding ratio of 35 percent.
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