November 17, 2019
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
Roll of the dice
About a month ago, Gov. J.B. Pritzker released a task force report calling for the consolidation of downstate municipal fire and police pension funds and called for quick action by the legislature to pass it into law.
This past week, Pritzker got what he wanted — the House and Senate both passed the measure by large bipartisan margins.
The results prove two things, one impressive and one not:
— Pritzker, not surprisingly, stands in good stead with legislators.
— Rank-and-file legislators do not have either the stomach or the courage to take the time necessary to study complicated issues when party leaders crack the whip.
That’s why it’s hard to say whether the pension consolidation legislation that was passed is a good thing or not. It looks like it’s a step in the right direction, but, absent an examination of serious issues related to consolidation of roughly 650 local fire and police pensions into two, it’s difficult to say with confidence that it is.
One thing this move is not, however, is a big step in the right direction. At best, it’s a small step in the right direction for these mostly underfunded fire and police pensions.
That’s why the public should ignore grandiose pronouncements from their legislators about what a great thing they have done.
Consider the comments from one member of the Illinois Senate.
“We’re finally doing what Illinois is supposed to do, which is get ahead of these issues before it becomes a crisis,” said Sen. Linda Holmes of Aurora.
Actually, the state is getting ahead of nothing. These pension funds, collectively, already face a financial crisis.
Illinois is taking the step of consolidation, a move intended to reduce administrative costs and potentially increase investment returns. Under a best-case scenario, one disputed by experts, the pension funds might generate an additional $800 million to $2.5 billion in additional income over five years.
That’s not chump change, but these funds face nearly $12 billion in unfunded liabilities.
It is reassuring that all the interested parties — the Illinois Municipal League and unions representing firefighters and police officers — were able to work out their differences and agree on legislation.
But that does not mean that the planned consolidation, particularly as it related to transition costs, will work as intended.
Under the proposal, there will be two pension funds — one for firefighters and the other for police — that will be managed by independent boards. In that respect, the funds will function like the pension systems for municipal employees and teachers.
No one would suggest that it would be best if each municipality or school district managed their own pension system for their employees. That kind of approach would be too unwieldy.
But in this case, all these separate fire and police funds exist, and the challenge is how to combine them in a way that generates administrative savings and investment gains.
The devil, as they say, is in the details, the details that our legislators refused to examine before acquiescing to pressure to vote now and worry later about the wisdom of their votes.
Legislators may have cast a good vote. The public should cross its collective fingers and hope they cast a good vote. Sometime far down the road — when actual results can be compared to promised results — everyone will find out if their hopes were realized.
November 17, 2019
The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan
There are intangibles for FEMA to think about when it comes to flood victims
Sometimes the math doesn’t add up.
Oh, the totals at the end of each column may match formulaic expectations, but the human bottom line is greater than the sum of cold numbers on a spreadsheet.
Such is the case in Illinois where the state’s application for individual aid for flood victims in Alexander, Union, Jackson and Randolph counties in Southern Illinois and several counties in the Mississippi and Illinois river flood plains in other parts of the state has been rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The numbers don’t add up.
The families in East Cape Girardeau that lost their homes, their family photos and their lives as they know it — they have been deemed ineligible for federal assistance because they are stuck on the wrong side of an equation. The same holds true for families living south of Olive Branch who had to boat to and from their home to keep an eye on things for most of the first six months of 2019.
Damage throughout the state was sufficient for Illinois to qualify for public assistance. That declaration will allow local governments, as well as churches and nonprofits, to be reimbursed up to 75 percent for flood-fighting expenditures repairs to public infrastructure.
In Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s letter of appeal to FEMA, it was pointed out that state agencies, counties and other units of local government spent $28 million fighting the flood, more than $9 million above the threshold for public assistance.
In cash-strapped Illinois, the public assistance funds are a welcome relief.
Unfortunately, the federal math doesn’t add up as well for individual property owners. The state’s appeal points out that FEMA itself calculated $8,221,601 in damage to private property, which is slightly above the $7.5 million threshold where 90 percent of individual assistance requests are approved.
Many home insurance policies don’t cover floods. Even in risky areas, some homeowners still skip flood coverage.
The unfortunate caveat for the flood victims, they are living in the poorest part of state that has a lot of private wealth. The wealth of successful entrepreneurs and industry titans in Illinois’ urban areas have little bearing on the person trying to get back into their modest home — except it means that they won’t be getting the money they need to get back on their feet.
The state’s appeal laid out that case eloquently, pointing out the unprecedented nature of the flooding — the longest flood in Illinois history, spanning nearly five months and affecting 2.1 million residents. According to the state’s figures, that represents more than 49 percent of the state’s population living outside the Chicago area.
It was also noted that more than 1,400 homes and numerous families affected by the flooding live in some of the most impoverished areas of the state. One of the counties affected by the flooding has a poverty rate of 30.3 percent.
What’s more, there seems to be some federal culpability in the actual flooding as well.
Much of Alexander County is impacted by the unrepaired breech in the Len Small Levee. When intact, the levee protected area residents when the Mississippi River reached about 50 feet. Since the levee was breeched nearly three years ago, flooding occurs when the river reaches 33 feet — something that normally occurs a couple times a year.
If the government isn’t going to fix the levee, it should either mitigate costs to repair homes, or institute a program to buy up properties and move residents to safety. It’s not unprecedented. The entire town of Valmeyer was relocated after severe flooding in 1993.
This statement from the state’s appeal makes the point eloquently, “(the lack of individual assistance) leaves once thriving communities at the point of no return as once longtime residents and business owners move away, unable to cope with the impacts that long-term flooding has had on the resiliency of our communities and residents.”
It’s time to re-add the figures, this time including intangible human costs in the equation.
November 15, 2019
(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald
Failing to give change at toll plazas is just wrong
Remember the days before I-PASS when upon encountering a tollway offramp you’d frantically dig around your car for enough change to satisfy the hungry white perforated toll basket?
In some cases, you’d keep throwing change at it until the arm went up and let you pass.
Thank goodness the Illinois Tollway replaced 80 of those in the last couple of years with touch screen machines (ATPMs) that accept credit cards, folding money and coins.
The toll baskets were old and unreliable and replacement parts were hard to come by, which explains why sometimes it didn’t seem to matter how many coins you threw at one to make the stop arm rise. Some still exist, mind, you, but not as many.
If you’re an out-of-towner and don’t have an I-PASS transponder, the new $76,000 high-tech machines are real anxiety-savers. They even accept $2 bills.
But if you’re getting off I-88 to visit your kid at Northern Illinois University, as our transportation expert Marni Pyke wrote, be sure to have exact change or use a credit card. If you feed the machine three singles for your $2.10 toll, you’ve paid 43 percent too much.
“No change given,” the machine tells you. It’s even written on the face of it.
About 30 toll payment machines on the mainline do offer change, Pyke reported. But 80 at ramps don’t.
“Cash baskets at these locations have never given change to customers, and ATPMs at these locations do not, either,” tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said.
Simply put, that’s highway robbery.
One would never expect one of the old toll baskets to fire change back at you. The mechanism simply isn’t a two-way thing.
But today’s machines are. They can make change. Not giving someone change because previous technologies couldn’t do it might fit well with the tollway’s budgeting, but it’s just plain wrong.
Logic tells us that this would hurt the poorest of us most — those who don’t have credit cards, those to whom change from a dollar means something.
This is not the equivalent of finding that rare soda machine that does not give change. You can walk past that soda machine and slake your thirst somewhere else.
On the tollway, you need to pay to exit.
It’s just that simple.
It’s time to change your tune, tollway directors, and do the right thing.