Residents, councilmembers discuss public safety pension debt in 2023 budget


Daily file photo by Madison Smith

Mayor Daniel Biss requested to table the ordinances up for action Monday night to be voted on at the next meeting on Nov. 14.

Shannon Tyler, Assistant City Editor

City Council held a Truth and Taxation public hearing Monday night in which residents commented on the 2022 property tax levy. Residents asked for more budget transparency and stressed the city’s need to address rising public safety pension debt. 

Evanston’s public safety pension debt has risen by $47 million in the past 7 years to $235 million, according to Evanston Now. Under current Illinois law, municipalities have until 2040 to fund 90% of their pension obligations. The city currently funds 52% of public safety pensions and is not on track to achieve that deadline.  

The current iteration of the 2023 budget would increase the property tax levy for the city’s fire pension by 3.8%, and the levy for the police pension fund will decrease by 4.4%. According to the President of the Police Pension Board Timothy Schoolmaster, about 10% of the Evanston police force has left the department over the past three years.

The city discarded the 4% increase in the overall property tax levy that was in the original proposed 2023 budget, stating the hike is no longer necessary. It will draw that money from not filling police position vacancies.

Schoolmaster said although the Evanston police pension saw a three-year financial gain, the city should tap into reserves to catch up on the police pension debt, instead of lowering the levy.

“I hope we can break the mold that we have been consistently shortchanging both police and fire funds this year going forward,” Schoolmaster said.

Jack Mortell, a retired fire department captain and member of the Firefighter’s Pension Board, said the fire pension fund has been historically underfunded. Mortell said he calculated a $3 million shortfall since 2012.

Leslie McMillan, a Finance and Budget Committee member, said the city needs to cut spending on projects such as the Animal Shelter and address the pension now. Without a change, she said, the city’s credit rating could drop. 

“If we continue to not do the hard work of actually cutting spending and addressing our pensions, all we are going to do is inflate our debt as well as inflating and having increasing rises in the pension,” McMillan said. 

Resident Trisha Connolly said it’s important to be transparent with the budget, and she requested the city show residents the city’s debt in an easy-to-understand graphic. Connolly suggested a bar graph that includes additional yearly costs describing the consequences of not paying the full share for the police and fire pensions. 

“Evanstonians have a right to see this upfront and clearly in the budget presentations,” Connolly said. 

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said she supports putting more money into the pension. 

Ald. Devon Reid (8th) and Kelly both proposed several ideas for how to bring funding to the 2023 budget. Reid inquired about beach token revenue and brought up the idea of allowing hookah bars in Evanston to bring in more sales tax revenue.

Kelly recommended taking a hard look at unassigned funds. According to Kelly this year, the city had $14 million in unassigned funds. In 2021, the city ended the year with $31 million in unassigned funds –– which Kelly said could have fully funded the pension. 

“If we had been fully funding this all along, this year, we’d be paying $7 million instead of about $21 million in our levy,” Kelly said. 

Mayor Daniel Biss requested not to pass any ordinances regarding tax levies at the meeting. Biss said he expects Council to vote on the ordinance at the next meeting on Nov. 14. 

WEB: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of unassigned funds in 2021. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @shannonmtyler

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