If you live in Illinois, chances are strong you live in a town that manages its own police and fire pension funds. Think your public safety departments are too small for their own funds? Think again. State law says that any city, village, or town with a population between 5,000 and 500,000, that employs at least one full-time police officer or firefighter, must have a pension fund. In 2016, there were 356 local police pension funds and 297 local firefighter pension funds in Illinois — up from 346 police and 286 firefighter funds nearly 10 years ago.
Illinois is unique. According to a 2012 Marquette Associates report, the United States in total had 1,511 public pension plans and Illinois made up 43 percent of that total. Pennsylvania, which came in second, had only 137 funds.
If you live in Illinois, chances are also strong that you live in a town with poorly funded police and fire pension funds. A common way to judge pension fund health is by its funding ratio, that is, take its assets (how much money the fund has) divided by its liabilities (how much money the fund needs to pay out all its benefits). For example, if a pension fund has $90 million in assets and $100 million in liabilities, it would have a funding ratio of 90 percent. There is no official standard to what is considered a “healthy” public fund, but in the private sector, a fund generally is considered “at risk” when it’s under 80 percent funded. In 2016, the aggregate funding level — the combined average of all police and fire funds in Illinois — came to 57.6 percent.
Use the BGA public safety pension tool below to find out how relatively healthy or unhealthy your funds are. After all, you and your fellow taxpayers will need to foot the bill for any pension fund shortfalls in your community. If you have any questions or concerns about your town’s specific police/fire pension fund, you can go to the Illinois Department of Insurance’s website to find the fund’s financial documents and get more information.
Database: Funding Ratios for Illinois Police and Fire Pension Funds, Statewide
The funding for these local public safety pension funds has varied over time. From 1999 to 2009, funding levels dropped year after year. Starting at 77.3 percent in 1999, aggregate funding levels bottomed out in 2009 with a funding ratio of 51.1 percent.
In 2011, a new law went into effect to attempt to bolster funding. The law required all public safety funds to have a funding ratio of 90 percent by 2040. With the new law and a better economic climate, public safety pensions have started to regain some funding footing. But, each fund is managed independently and funding levels can vary greatly. More than one hundred funds have more money on hand than they owe, with one locality reaching a funding ratio of 515 percent. On the flip side, there are a few jurisdictions that have no funding for their pensions at all.
There are proposals currently being considered in Springfield that would consolidate public safety funds in one form or another. We’ll examine those plans more in future posts. Stay connected with the BGA for more information and analysis of Illinois pensions, proposals that address funding problems, and more.