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Preckwinkle gives unions 30 days to help her craft pension reform legislation

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle spoke West Suburban Chamber Commerce Industry Monday.  | JLangham~for Sun-Times Media

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle spoke to the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry Monday. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 10, 2013 6:41AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle got down to brass tacks with labor leaders Thursday, setting a 30-day deadline for unions and county officials to help her craft legislation aimed at cleaning up the pension mess.

Preckwinkle and Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez, were among roughly 20 union and county leaders in the meeting, and both stressed no “ultimatum” was given.

“This is a mutual problem — there’s no need for tough talk,” Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times. “We’re trying to work together to solve this.”

“I emphasized this has to be shared sacrifice,” Preckwinkle said. “I told them we can’t wait any longer.”

She also told them what she had in mind: raising employee contributions and the county’s matching dollars for pensions; phasing-in an increase to the retirement age and guaranteeing retiree healthcare benefits, but capping cost increases.

The goal is to get an agreement that can be taken to the Illinois General Assembly in time for this year’s regular session.

Because the pension code is part of state law any proposed changes to the county’s pension system would have to be approved by the Illinois Legislature, officials say.

In a phone interview after the meeting at the Chicago Federation of Labor’s headquarters downtown, Ramirez said: “This wasn’t perceived or presented as an ultimatum. She said she’d like to get something in 30 days, but it wasn’t ‘30 days – or else.’”

Unfunded government pensions has become part of the national conversation.

Right now, Cook County’s pension is 57 percent funded, with $5.8 billion in unfunded liabilities.

“We’ll be bankrupt by 2038,” Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, a North Side Democrat, said as she rattled off the statistics. Gainer, who heads the county board’s pension committee, said the stock market crash and early retirement plans have drawn down the pension well in Cook County.

“At the end of the day — we’re sitting around saying ‘how should we come to a conclusion?’ We need to be fair to the workers, and we need to be fair to the taxpayers.”

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