By: John Klingner
Mamie Cosey lives just a couple of blocks away from an East St. Louis fire station that’s been threatened with closure. The long-struggling city doesn’t have the money to pay for both its pension costs and its active public safety workers. Shutting the building down would leave the city of 20,000 people with just two operating fire stations.
“I have great grandchildren that live with me…So what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to just let my house burn? Or maybe I won’t get out of the house? So that’s a great concern for me,” Mamie told Wirepoints when we visited her.
Mamie and her family are victims of a growing malaise impacting cities across Illinois, where residents are taxed out, services are being slashed, police and firefighters are losing their jobs, and public pensioners are losing their retirement security. A recent law that garnishes city tax revenues to pay for pensions is making things worse.
Wirepoints visited East St. Louis last year when the city was in the midst of just such a financial fight with its local police and fire pension pension funds. Our conversations with local residents became a part of Wirepoints’ new On the Ground video series.
Cities like Harvey, North Chicago and East St. Louis are the worst-off in Illinois. They are unable to properly pay for public safety services or public safety pensions. But there are many other communities across the state headed down the same path. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated their decline.
Cities desperately need help, and yet Illinois lawmakers are doing nothing. They won’t pursue a pension amendment or reforms, they won’t roll back labor laws, and they won’t even give cities the option to declare bankruptcy.
Instead, lawmakers have imposed on cities a “pension intercept” law, which gives local pension trustees the power to demand the state comptroller garnish a municipality’s tax revenues so they can be handed over to the pension fund. It’s just another state mandate.
Wirepoints’ latest Special Report Will COVID-19 lead to “pension intercepts” and cuts to core city services across Illinois? details how 200 cities across Illinois are in danger of having their revenues intercepted.
The intercept law is not a solution for either cities or local pensions. Pouring more cash into broken retirement funds will lead to slashed city services, lost police protection, and fewer firemen for emergencies.
Mamie Cosey knows that will only make things worse for residents like her: “We need the fire department. We need the police protection. We need all of that help so that our community will thrive and be a safe environment.”
Structural pension reform, starting with a pension amendment, is the best way to help Illinoisans like her.
Read more about the crisis facing Illinois cities: