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Our view: Local leaders need more economic flexibility

Published: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 8:39 a.m. CDT

When mayors Joseph Broda of Lisle and Jeff Pruyn of Itasca stopped by the Suburban Life Media newsroom Friday to talk about legislative priorities for 2014, there was one common thread across all topics – Springfield’s apparent reluctance to take action on local issues.

And these aren’t just any issues – these are the ones where new state laws are required for any change to take place.

Broda and Pruyn were visiting in their roles as representatives of the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, a group that travels to Springfield periodically to talk with legislators about how state-level matters affect local municipalities.

Their top priorities were:

• The need for the Legislature to reform public safety pensions. While Illinois took action to reform four statewide pension systems in 2013, and received a lot of attention for doing so, the local public safety pensions – think police and firefighters – were left untouched. While the state pension systems ran aground in part because of the state’s failure to fully fund them, local municipalities that have made their required payments find themselves falling behind anyway as the formulas for determining how much needs to be contributed change – for instance, as life expectancies for pension recipients rise.

• Opposing House Bill 5485, which would make “minimum manning” a mandatory topic for discussion in collective bargaining with firefighters’ unions. There’s nothing currently to stop a union from raising the topic of how many firefighters are hired in a given department, but there’s nothing requiring a municipality to meet any such requests. Cities and villages, the mayors said, consider staffing levels as part of their entire budgeting process – if this bill passes, they could be forced by arbitration to hire more firefighters than they can afford, thereby reducing governmental services elsewhere.

The common element in these and other issues? Most local governments work hard to be responsible when it comes to managing taxpayers’ money, but they feel that too often their hands are tied by state laws that require spending beyond what actually is needed. A bill such as the minimum manning proposal sounds well-intentioned, but given that federal guidelines already dictate the number of firefighters for each truck, it does seem counterproductive to start adding extra requirements that could lead to more spending without any benefit to residents.

It’s bad enough that Illinois has put itself in dire straits financially, and admirable that Springfield is trying to dig itself out through measures like pension reform for state employees. But we can’t forget that local governments are laboring under restrictions that force them to waste dollars they’d rather spend responsibly.

Springfield needs to act on these proposals so that our local officials can do the jobs we’ve elected them to do.

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