City Workers Deserving of 'Lavish' Pensions

Chicago Tribune - January 07, 2011

Maybe those defined-benefit pensions aren't so lavish after all.

Maybe there are some jobs so dangerous, so demanding of steady nerves and sound judgment under pressure, that the men and women who work them deserve the benefit of our doubts.

Even when times are tough, even when most of us can only wish we could retire at age 50 with 75 percent of pay, maybe we should take a deep breath, dial down the envy, and just say: "Thanks, guys. You deserve every penny."

Chicago firefighters Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum will never get to enjoy their retirements or their defined-benefit pensions. Their lives were cut short last Wednesday morning after they dashed into a fire-compromised building on the South Side to look for survivors, only to become victims themselves when a truss roof collapsed. More than a dozen other firemen were injured, two seriously.

Stringer and Ankum died as heroes, and the collective heart of Chicagoland goes out to their families. Ankum was a father of three, including a 1-year-old. Stringer was older, divorced with a grown daughter. He liked to ride his motorcycle, walk his beagle Roscoe and, when the need arose, mow his neighbor's lawn and shovel her walkway.

Point is, the biggest problem I had last Wednesday, besides writing this column, was finding the bad bulb on a dysfunctional string of Christmas tree lights. How about you? Were you hustling to get a year-end report written before Christmas break? Or wading through shoppers at Oakbrook Centre looking for that perfect something for a certain someone?

Fact is, most of us don't have to dash into a still-smoldering building by dawn's early light to see if there's someone lying lifeless in the black soot. Or, for that matter, approach a darkened automobile pulled over on the shoulder of a lonely expressway at 3 in the morning.

So while we may joke about cops' supposed affinity for doughnuts, or cluck-cluck about those on-duty firemen who got caught recently helping a buddy renovate his house, very few of us would want their jobs when a 3-11alarm is sounded or when the words "shots fired" crackle over the police radio.

These are special jobs that require the men and women who perform them to take extraordinary risks under extraordinary circumstances. So maybe, just maybe, they deserve to be compensated in special ways. And maybe, just maybe, one of those ways ought to be a defined-benefit pension with a high enough dollar amount and low enough eligibility threshold to match the risks involved.

None of the above is intended to excuse the excessive public-sector retirement benefits we've been hearing about lately. Shame on the retired Highland Park parks director who gets $166,332 annually thanks to a mega-raise in his last year and on the Homewood-Flossmoor school teacher/administrator who allegedly is pulling down $238,882 a year.

Incessant reporting about these and other excesses has made the public uber cynical about public-sector retirement programs. Many are calling for an end to defined-benefit pensions altogether, or at least a reform that puts new hires in defined contribution, 401(k)-type plans common in the private sector. (Never mind that the average retired teacher in Illinois gets about $43,000 a year.)

Such a reform probably is inevitable, given the dire state of public-sector budgets at all levels. So let's go ahead and tell the paper-shufflers and building inspectors and driver's license examiners that they can play mutual fund roulette with the rest of us. But somehow I don't begrudge giving a better deal to the cops and the smoke-eaters.

My dad was a volunteer firefighter as a young man and went on to become chief of our small town's fire department. He told me once that, when he was a rookie, he passed out fighting a smoky flax fire in a textile mill in North Providence, R.I. Would have been a goner, too, but for another fireman who "went back in" and found "Mac" unconscious on the floor.

So I'm prejudiced. I wouldn't be writing this except for a guy who "went back in." And if an ample pension is all he or she wants for taking that risk, I'd say we're all getting a heck of a deal.

John McCarron teaches, consults and writes about urban affairs.