More financial problems in Chicago suburbs: underfunded police and fire pensions

If the federal government is short on money and so is the state of Illinois, then financial problems were eventually going to trickle down to individual communities, even those who would usually be considered wealthy. The Chicago Tribune details how many suburban municipalities have fallen behind in funding police and fire pensions:

Of the 300-plus pension funds across the region, only about 20 are rated by the state as fully funded…

The flaws and excesses were long masked by a strong economy, when big investment returns pushed average funding levels to nearly 80 percent a decade ago — which many experts consider to be healthy. The latest figures from 2009 show suburban public-safety pension funds, on average, have just 52 percent of the assets needed to be fully funded.

Though the true cost will vary from place to place, the unpaid tab averages nearly $2,700 for every suburban household. A strong economy could boost investment returns and lessen the liability, but experts say the financial sins of the past are too great for pension systems to merely invest their way out of them.

As lawmakers consider reforms, town leaders and unions point fingers. Unions complain towns haven’t saved enough and lawmakers failed to force them. Suburban leaders complain lawmakers required them to offer lucrative benefits without the cash to pay for them. The one thing they agree on: The recession made the problems far worse…

The state doesn’t compile figures of how many towns have done that, with such findings usually buried in individual fund audits. The Tribune reviewed every audit the state would provide — 153 of them in metro Chicago — and found regulators cited a third of their taxing districts for not providing enough cash to their pension funds.

A couple of things stand out to me about this story:

1. One issue appears to be that of fragmented suburban government. Illinois, specifically the Chicago region, is well-known for its many taxing districts and municipalities. If each community, big or small, was to provide a pension fund, there were bound to be problems when some of these communities cannot meet their obligations.

2. Residents are not going to be happy about this. There are a couple of places they might direct their anger: toward local officials who didn’t properly fund these pensions or toward police or fire unions (a common issue in more conservative locations). Residents are also likely to be unhappy if fire and police personnel, people who many citizens feel keep their communities livable and safe, are let go.

3. How would local communities explain their actions regarding funding pensions? Can they or local officials be held responsible, outside of voting against them?