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MATTOON -- A four page report asserting that Mattoon Fire Department pension costs are too high was recently mailed to more than 11,200 household and business addresses in the city limits.

Former Mattoon City Council member David Schilling wrote this critique. Mattoon Firefighters Local 691 has responded by saying that Schilling's report skews its presentation of various financial figures regarding the fire department while not applying the same critical examination to other city departments or past actions by the City Council.

Schilling, who served two terms as city finance commissioner from 2001 to 2009, said he has long been concerned about firefighter pension costs growing at a rate that he feels is financially "unsustainable" for the city. Schilling said he started writing his report in January 2017 and went through many drafts before recently getting this critique ready for a mass mailing.

"I felt like that was important to get that information out to the people," Schilling said. He added that local businesses and community members anonymously donated money to cover the printing and mailing costs.

Schilling writes in his report that a firefighter can retire at age 50 with 20 years of experience, or 30 years for a full benefit, and then be eligible for a pension that grows at the rate of 3 percent compounded. He added that the pension program covers widows of firefighters, too. He wrote that the city's annual firefighter pension payouts have increased from $1.2 million for 45 retirees in 2003 to $2.6 million for 55 retirees in 2018.

In the report, Schilling also writes about the city's firefighter pension fund and the amount of money that city has to have in it based on the number and ages of the current and retired firefighters, and the percentage of funding. He wrote that the firefighter pension fund had net assets of $15.5 million in 2017, enough to fund only 30.4 percent of the $50.9 million in pension obligation for that year.

Schilling said, in an interview, that the city also is facing similar levels of pension obligations and shortfalls in funding for the police pension fund.

"Pension cost issues have been predominately created by previous city councils not funding the pension plans," said firefighter union president Bart Owen. "Firefighters have 9.43 percent deducted from our paychecks and have for years; yet the city did not fulfill their side of the deal. Now they are placing the blame on employees."

Owen said pension plans are like retirement insurance and they balance retirement risk, like home or car insurance. He said participants contribute a set amount, like a premium, so it will cover them in retirement after they have worked for years and earned the benefit. As another example, he said everyone in Social Security eventually draws out more than they put into it. He added, "that’s the point or it would make no mathematical sense to create retirement systems."

In addition, Owen said revisions to state law governing two tier pension systems for anyone hired in 2011 or later will save cities 25 percent on pension costs. He said new hires since then are no longer receiving 3 percent compounding yearly increases in their pensions. He also said the pensions are no longer based on the last day's pay for a firefighter and are now based on an average eight of 10 years of salaries.

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Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @RobStroud

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