Extra pay for Chicago police and firefighters is excessive, unsustainable

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed the largest property-tax hike in modern city history, which the Chicago City Council passed on Oct. 28, he said it was the only option to avoid making Chicago “unlivable.” Nearly all of the $588-million hike will go to fund the city’s police and fire pension funds.

But a new Chicago Sun-Times investigation by reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco reveals this was a false choice – payrolls are ripe for reform.

The report showed that more than 11,000 Chicago city workers made $100,000 or more in 2014. And it revealed stunning new numbers about how much the city is spending on overtime and extra pay.

For example, Chicago spent the equivalent of more than $24,000 in overtime and extra pay for every participant in the police and fire pension systems (4,809 for fire and 12,020 for police).

The study’s headline finding was that out of the more than 35,000 city workers in Chicago – from librarians and lawyers to sanitation workers and firefighters – 32 percent of them took home six figures last year. That’s compared with 11 percent of Illinois state employees and 12 percent of Cook County employees.

The average take-home pay for all Chicago Fire Department employees, including clerical staff, was more than $111,000.

Clearly, something is amiss in the Windy City.

The investigation revealed the drivers of these outsized salaries are often overtime and extra pay typically offered to police and fire personnel.

According to the Sun-Times research, Chicago spent $245.9 million on “other” pay for police and fire personnel in 2014, and another $161.3 million on overtime for those employees.

Novak and Fusco pointed out some of the costly practices that require the city to make these large payouts, including:

  • The Chicago Police Department allows employees to accumulate compensatory, or comp, time and cash out when they leave the department. This led to five cash-outs in excess of $100,000, primarily from comp time, when officers retired last year.
  • Police supervisors can cash in 200 hours of comp time per year, worth thousands of dollars.
  • Nearly 4,000 firefighters receive two “Daley days” per month under a program started in the late 1960s under Mayor Richard J. Daley. On these days, workers receive overtime pay if they are summoned to work.
  • Police officers and firefighters get 13 paid holidays each year. Police officers also receive between 20 and 25 vacation days per year, and three to six extra vacation days called “baby furlough days,” which they may cash in at the end of the year. Baby furlough days cost the city $7 million in 2011.

Those who put their lives on the line for Chicago residents deserve praise, as well as appropriate pay and benefits. But the reality is that public safety in Chicago is being jeopardized by the city’s poor financial footing. Fixing that problem requires all parties, including public-safety employees, to make financial sacrifices.

But Emanuel took the easy way out, and opted to raid Chicagoans’ wallets without any real reform.

"You're down to two choices: All these cuts in police, fire and basic neighborhood services — that's a set of choices and I'm against those cuts — or a property tax," Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.

Although politically painful, reforming overtime and extra pay for Chicago police officers and firefighters would have been a reasonable trade-off for the record-setting tax hike required to ensure generous, lifelong retirement benefits for these workers.

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