Chicago Pension Debt Rises to $37 Billion as City Hunts for Cash

(Bloomberg) — Chicago’s pension burden climbed again last year as new laws and accounting measures added to costs, and first-term Mayor Brandon Johnson looks for new revenue.

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The net pension liability across the city’s four retirement funds rose about 5% to $37.2 billion as of Dec. 31, up from $35.4 billion a year earlier, according to Chicago’s latest annual financial report.

The amount the city owes to its four pensions that pay benefits to retired firefighters, police officers, municipal workers and laborers increased because of changes in pension assumptions and legislation, according to the report. The increase in costs was partly offset by investment income.

“While the City still faces several long-term structural challenges, we are charting a better path forward for the City’s finances,” Johnson said in a letter dated June 28 that is attached to the 2023 annual report.

Pension debt is a burden Johnson as well as his most recent predecessors inherited after decades of underfunding. Shortly after taking office in May 2023, Johnson set up a pension working group to find long-term solutions, but it has made no official proposals so far.

“The City is embarking on our annual forecast and budgeting process, at which time we review the actuarial reports of the pension funds to determine their impact on the City’s financial resources,” Jill Jaworski, Chicago’s chief financial officer, said in an email on Monday.

Johnson and members of the city council recently began reviewing the city’s revenue sources to see if its mix should change to increase funds. Roughly 80% of the city’s property-tax levy goes toward its pension costs. Johnson’s predecessor, Lori Lightfoot, had implemented an automatic property-tax increase tied to the rate of inflation to address rising costs but Johnson halted that as part of a campaign promise.

The chronic lack of adequate contributions helped fuel Chicago’s ballooning pension liability — the biggest single weight on the city’s budget and credit ratings.

But increased contributions and advance payments by the Lightfoot and Johnson administrations have slowed the pace, said Justin Marlowe, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. The problem is that rising interest rates and inflation have been eroding the benefits of those additional dollars, he said.

“Even when you are disciplined about making the contributions, there are these other headwinds,” Marlowe said. “This is probably the first year we are seeing all the macro trends hit that unfunded pension liability.”

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