Generous rules govern aldermen's pensions

Former Ald. William Beavers is accused of failing to pay taxes on money taken from his campaign accounts to buy into the city pension plan. (Alex Garcia/Tribune)

When Chicago aldermen floated a proposal in 1987 to boost their city pensions dramatically, Mayor Harold Washington's administration dismissed it as an arrogant ploy that lacked even a cursory cost analysis.

Three years later, the proposal still didn't have a price tag. But records show that the new mayor,Richard M. Daley, helped push it through the state Legislature anyway.

Now a Tribune/WGN-TV investigation reveals how much those lucrative pensions could end up costing taxpayers.

An analysis of pension fund documents for 21 aldermen who retired under the plan shows they are in line to receive nearly $58 million during their expected lifetimes, though contributions and assumed investment returns are predicted to cover just $19 million, or a third of that sum.

The pension deal was inked more than two decades ago, but the costs began to kick in recently. Most of the 21 aldermen in the Tribune/WGN-TV analysis have retired within the past five years, and there are 53 more in the pipeline.

Former Ald. Thomas Allen is a prime example. After retiring from the City Council in 2010 at age 58, Allen went on to become a Circuit Court judge while also collecting roughly $90,000 a year from his city pension. During his lifetime, he stands to receive more than $4.2 million in benefits, though contributions and assumed investment returns are expected to cover only $1 million.

The inflated benefits for aldermen represent a small fraction of the municipal pension plan's $6.7 billion in unfunded liabilities. But they are a dramatic illustration of the structural problems lying at the center of Chicago's pension crisis.

The perk for aldermen also shows how the Daley administration leveraged city pension funds for political purposes rather than protecting the modest, sustainable retirement benefits promised to city workers.

Under the plan, aldermen and other elected city officials became eligible to receive up to 80 percent of the salary they earned during their last month of work. All other employees in the municipal pension plan — including top managers — receive 70 percent of their average monthly salary over the previous four years.

Aldermen can also reach the maximum benefit with just 20 years of service, compared with nearly 30 years for everyone else in the municipal pension plan.

Council members argue that they deserve to earn credit more quickly because they face re-election every four years. "Once you become (a city employee), you have to commit murder to lose your job. And an alderman can get tossed out in the next election," said Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, who has been on the council for nearly four decades.

Data from the pension fund show that aldermen in the Tribune/WGN-TV analysis retired with an average of 25 years of service, roughly the same as the average retiree in the municipal pension plan.

The average payout to those aldermen is $81,000 a year. But because they can retire at 55 and their pensions grow by 3 percent compounded annually for the rest of their lives, the average amount will eventually increase to $165,000 a year.

The result is that many aldermen will end up making more in retirement than they did when they served on the council.

"I believe it's a bit too generous, yes, especially with the tough economic times for the city," said Ald. Nicholas Sposato, 36th, who is eligible for a higher pension benefit in a shorter amount of time as an alderman than when he served as a Chicago firefighter.

The aldermanic pension plan gained attention early this year when federal authorities indicted former Ald. William Beavers, who is alleged to have failed to pay taxes on money taken from his campaign accounts to buy into the aldermanic plan. Beavers is now receiving a city pension of more than $91,000 a year and is also eligible to earn a county pension based on his $85,000 salary as a Cook County commissioner.

Like many sweetheart pension deals, the origin of the aldermanic pension perk is murky. It's impossible to determine from public records who drafted it, for example. But new records unearthed by the Tribune andWGN-TVshow who blessed it: the Daley administration.

Without any public vetting, legislation creating the plan was slipped into a larger bill before it was signed into state law in January 1991. Last year, the Tribune and WGN-TV detailed how another provision added to that same legislation allowed many union officials to land six-figure city pensions. The investigation led to rewrites of the state's pension code, forced one top union leader to resign and sparked a federal criminal investigation.

The pension revisions came as Daley was running for his first full term as mayor. He went on to dominate city government for five more terms with frequent support from organized labor and the acquiescence of the City Council. During his tenure, Daley appointed nearly three dozen aldermen, many of whom went on to earn full aldermanic pensions.