News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Cops get a new contract—but they still won't vote for Rahm

Mayor Emanuel maneuvers to save his slush funds.



With news that Mayor Emanuel has given police a new contract, I had to ask some cops I know: Are you going to vote for Rahm?

And the answer was resounding: Hell, no!

Proving that police like the mayor about as much as librarians and teachers do.

And the reason? Pensions.

Pensions matter a lot to police because, like teachers and other public-sector workers, they're not eligible for social security. Plus, they have to retire by law at age 63, so they can't work on and on until they drop.

Also, it's a hard job that can bring them face to face with the world's nastiest miscreants—some of whom are armed.

So it's not surprising that many police officers count down those last few years before retirement, when they can look forward to an annual salary of as much as $60,000.

There are two schools of thought regarding police pensions. One is what I call the Ben attitude—modestly named for myself. It goes like this: Thanks for the service. Better you get my tax dollars than Marriott and DePaul and the mayor's entertainment complex for tourists.

Then there are those who say: To hell with that! I don't get a pension. Why should cops?

Which isn't far from Bruce Rauner's attitude toward public pensions.

By law, the police contribute 9 percent of their salaries—taken out of their paychecks—to the pension fund. The city kicks in 18 percent. So if a cop makes $80,000 a year, he contributes $7,200 and the city pays $14,400.

These pensions are then invested—shrewdly, I hope—by an oversight board of trustees of union and mayoral appointees.

The problem is that contributions alone don't enable the fund to survive downturns in the financial markets.

When the markets are strong—as they were in the 90s—the pension fund is more or less solvent. But when financial markets collapse—as they did in 2008—it's danger time.

Mayor Emanuel didn't want to pay this pension money any more than Mayor Daley did, so he tried a strategy known as divide and conquer.

At the moment, the Chicago police pension is about 30 percent funded. That means that if every single policeman were to retire today and all payments into the plan were halted, we would only have enough money on hand to pay about 30 percent of the obligations.

Throughout most of the 2000s, police members of the pension board were urging Mayor Daley to make greater contributions to the fund so we'd never have a crisis.

But the mayor wouldn't, basically because he didn't want to raise the taxes or give up spending money on more glamorous things, such as the Olympics.

So Daley did what he usually did when facing a tough choice: he punted. He put off the hard decision in the hopes that all would go well and he wouldn't have to make it.

By the time Mayor Emanuel waltzed into office, he had to deal with a state law, passed in 2010, that required a contribution of at least $600 million to shore up the fund.

Emanuel didn't want to pay this money any more than Daley did, so he tried a strategy known as divide and conquer.

The police contract expired in 2011, meaning cops worked without a contract or a raise for the first three years under Emanuel.

In 2013 Emanuel cut a deal with the sergeants' association in which he agreed to give them a raise—retroactive pay included—and they agreed to pension cuts.

The idea was that once the sergeants were on board, the mayor could force the larger Fraternal Order of Police—which represents the rank and file—to cut a similar deal.

Needing less money to pay to the pensions, the mayor could proclaim himself a bold problem solver who saved taxpayers millions. At the same time, he would be able to spend millions on his own version of the Olympics: the South Loop arena and hotel complex.

But in March 2013 the sergeants overwhelmingly voted down the deal. So Mayor Emanuel tried a squeeze play.

He moved to take advantage of the fact that Mike Shields—the former head of the FOP—had failed to file papers to negotiate for retroactive raises for the years the cops worked without a contract.

The mayor had the cops by the short hairs. If they wanted their retro raises, he would make them agree to pension cuts. Except that the cops didn't buckle.

The stalemate dragged on until last week, when Emanuel and Dean Angelo, the new president of the FOP, cut their deal. The cops got a four-year contract, retro pay included. And Mayor Emanuel—well, it's not clear what he got. The union didn't make any pension concessions. And I doubt that Angelo promised to endorse the mayor, or that he could deliver on an endorsement if he tried.

More likely, the mayor's hoping that Angelo keeps his union neutral as Emanuel continues to repackage himself as a kinder, more benevolent leader.

Or as Alderman Pat O'Connor, the mayor's floor leader, recently told reporters: Yes, they could have used Shields's mistake to screw cops out of retro pay. But "you're talking about the people who respond to the most horrific and dangerous situations that can be presented in an urban area. I don't think we were looking to play 'gotcha' with them."

OK, readers, what do you think? Is the mayor being nice to cops because he really appreciates them? Or is he looking out for his own skin, not wanting to run against the likes of Karen Lewis and Alderman Robert Fioretti while the police are up in arms?

Well, like I always say: it's not why you do what you do so long as you do it. Or whatever it is I always say.

The irony is that the mayor, who promised to be bold, has put off the matter of that $600 million contribution for another year. In other words, he punted—just like Mayor Daley.

Anything to ensure he still has money for pet projects.

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