Figures recently released by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas show that Evanston residents are shouldering a higher municipal debt burden than most other taxpayers in the county.

Of nearly 120 cities and villages in the county, only two — Lemont and Willow Springs — had a higher ratio of debt to operating revenue than the 383 percent ratio in Evanston.

And calculated as debt burden for each resident, Evanston’s debt, when unfunded pension liabilities are added, reaches $7,220 — nearly three times the level in neighboring Skokie.

Those figures don’t include the burden for county government or local school districts, which would add nearly $4,000 more to the average Evanstonian’s local government debt liability.

As a step toward reducing the debt burden, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz is proposing to fund about $2 million of next year’s capital improvement projects from current tax revenue rather than additional borrowing.

But that will make only a small dent in a debt burden, excluding unfunded pensions, that now totals nearly $333 million.

Related document

Treasurer’s debt disclosure reports

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. But there’s plenty of money

    to buy yet another white elephant building that no one else wants or needs.

    to give away beach passes to teens that SHOULD HAVE been doing, at a minimum, some volunteer work in exchange for them.

    to chase business out because madame Mayor doesn't like their business card.

    to fund the special interest projects that no one really wants or needs.

    and there's so much more…

    The whole batch should be tossed out. When's election day again???

  2. Government unions are bleeding us dry

    Evanston's unfunded pensions are the bulk of this debt and it's growing.

    In light of this bad news debt, our City Council just gave a RAISE to the Evanston Police Sergeant's Union. That raise could even be higher should the Council this year negotiate an even better raise for two other city government unions.

    Also consider that our Evanston aldermen, including my rep, Mark Tendam, did NOTHING to eliminate the possibility of city aldermen, qualifying for a pension. Yes, our aldermen who work part-time want to know if they can get a pension so they kicked the issue to the Human Relations Committee for further review.

    Meanwhile, it appears that Bonnie Wilson, the Evanston Township Assessor and former head of the Evanston Democrat party, has applied for a pension. It has been reported that the city clerk filed the necessary paperwork. Wilson works part time and sets her own hours.

    In summary, we are deep in debt, our branch libraries are closing, there's talk of shutting down the Chandler-recreation Center and possibly the Ecology Center and yet the city INCREASED the duplicative Evanston Township budget 80 percent, proposed a pay raise for the Evanston Township deputy assessor, did NOT layoff ONE Evanston fireman during this recession, gave unions annual pay raises and raised municipal and gas taxes and water and sewer rates.

    Our former fire chief last year retired at age 52, getting a six-figure pension for the rest of his life. Now he's working as Winnetka's fire chief, earning another six-figure salary and qualifying for another six-figure pension for life in 10 years. That's called a jackpot pension. And we pay for it.  

    One thing's for sure, if  Bonnie Wilson and our aldermen, who by the way, voted themselves a 20 percent pay raise in 2008, apply and qualify for a pension, our debt AND our taxes will rise.

    Most of our aldermen, including Tendam, accepted union campaign support.

    Does anyone think it's a conflict of interest when an elected politician accepts donations from government union employee PACS and then votes on new contracts for those same employees?

    The only way to stop this ballooning pension madness is to vote out all of our city politicians and elect people who do NOT accept union donations, who WILL FREEZE union pay raises and benefits, who will LAYOFF firemen and once and for all enact an ordinance that says part-time employees, including aldermen and the Evanston Township Assessor, DO NOT qualify for a pension.

    It's all up to us. You want your libraries and recreation centers then take back your city from the parasitic government unions, who are bleeding us dry.

    1. As a first step—

      Make all pensions based on working to 66 [later in later years] and not on the basis on assuming a full pension period is 20 years or to 55 or other such nonsense.  E.g. working age 22-66, thus pension based on years worked*(66-22).

      Better yet convert all pensions to 401-k as business has been doing for sometime or at a minimum all new employees get 401-k and no pensions.

      Of course the Council, Mayor and other elected officials should not be included in any pension or 401-k plan—they wanted the office and i'm sure their connections from holding the office will more than make-up for any pension not being received.  Just the the payback for all the increases they give to the unions and 'gifts' to businesses has to set them up for life.

      1. What is a pension exactly?

        I work in the private sector and am unfamiliar with the word "pension."   Can you please explain what it is and why it is that government employees get these "pensions" when I do not?  I was under the impression that, as a taxpayer, government employees work for me.  Why would the people who work for me enjoy a benefit that I do not receive?

        1. Re; What is a pension exactly?

          I want to make this simple for you so you can understand.

          In the private sector it is called Social security and / or employer contributions to a 401k. The people in the public sector do not receive social security benefits upon retirement. You, in the private sector, contribute 4.2% of your salary towards social security while the public sector employees contribute 9.91% of their salary. Also, if you are fortunate enough to work for a private sector company that contributes to your 401k, you receive the benefits from that. Public sector employees are able to have 457k plans. However, those plans are 100% funded by the employee.  

          So, on a $50k salary, you would pay $2,100 a year for social security while the public sector employee would pay would pay $4,955 towards their pension. 

          If you happen to work for Northwestern University, for example, their retirements plans are;

          Plan Benefits
          Any regular employee scheduled to work half-time or more (17.5 or more hours per week) and is at least age 24 may participate in the University's Basic Matched, Basic Unmatched, and Basic Supplemental Retirement Plans.
          •  Unmatched Plan: 5% of eligible earnings; funded entirely by Northwestern University
          •  Matched Plan: 1%-5% of eligible earnings; Northwestern University matches employee contributions
          •  Supplemental Plan: Percentage of eligible earnings or flat dollar amount; entirely funded by the employee.

          So, on that $50k salary, you would receive an additional $2,500 a year on the first plan or up to $2,500 on a matched plan. Public sector employees are responsible for 100% of their contributions. 

          As far as "working for you" …. You, as well as public sector employees, all pay property taxes which fund the salaries for these employees.

          If you wish to serve your fellow citizens and work in the public sector, the city has employment opportunities listed on their web page. 

          1. This is what a union pension is – exactly

            Nice try.

            In the past four years during this recession millions of Americans saw their 401k plans and other investments dramatically drop, many more by half. Wiped out.

            Oh, but even though government pensions are funded based on financial investments, union employees are GUARANTEED their FULL retirement pay.  Most government union employees can retire at age 55 and collect for the rest of their lives 50-75 percent of their FINAL salary with a GUARANTEED 3 percent annual raise. Let's not even talk about the sweetheart health benefits.

            So, a government union pension employee who retires at age 55 with a final salary of $50,000 can collect between $25,000 -$37,500 a year with the 3 percent annual raise..

            Meanwhile, this year Social Security recipients did not get a cost of living increase. And certainly Social Security recipients who retire at age 65 do not get 50-75 percent of their final salary. It's not even close.

            Ever hear of a Social Security recipient getting a six figure annual retirement pay? Our former fire chief just retired at age 52 and is getting a six-figure pension, even though he is working somewhere else. How many of these fire chiefs are out there collecting six figure pensions in retirement? How many stories of double dipping and spiking to abuse the pension system have you heard about just this year?

            I've heard way too much. It's disgusting. And it's a fiscal train wreck coming to a town near you.

            Just take a look at Greece.


          2. This is what a union pension is – exactly

            Can you please provide specifics on those "sweetheart health benefits"? Please list the details of these … I'm sure the public sector employees who have to pay 100% of their health care premiums upon retirement would be very interested on the benefits they are missing out on. 

            I do not disagree with you regarding spiking pay to receive larger retirement benefits. However, this is done only for the top tier of administrators. The "regular" public sector people do not get this perk. The majority of public sector employees are bound by their contracts and have no way to pad their salaries in their final years, unlike the top administrators. 

            As far as your comments regarding post retirement salaries, I also agree the social security recipient does not get the same income. The average yearly social security income in 2011 is $21,324. Also, please consider the average years of retirement collection. The average life expectancy for a male in the US is 75 years. While the average for a police officer is 59. So the collection of those benefits, on average, is four years while the social security recipients average is ten years. 

            Finally, please do not blame the current financial crisis on the people receiving pensions. There have been decades of failures by the governments to fund these pensions. Not because they couldn't, but because they were using the funds allocated for the payments for other things.

            I equate this to an "interest free" offer that many retail places offer. If you buy something with a "no interest" for one year if paid in full at the end of the year how would you pay for it? Would you make a monthly payment equal to 1/12th of the final bill? Or, would you go out and spend your money on a lot of other things and then in the 11th month cry that your payment is due and you are broke? That is the same thing many governmental bodies have done for decades. So, who is to blame? The workers who paid their contributions during their careers, or the politicians who spent the required contributions on other things?  

            Before you point fingers and criticize the hard working men and women who work in the public sector, please look at all the issues. These people want only what was promised them when they signed up! 

          3. Puh-lease

            "While the average for a police officer is 59. So the collection of those benefits, on average, is four years…"

            That number is based on voodoo math…at best.  I challenge you to find one state where the duration of the police pension payout is only 4 years, and please post your findings.  A wikipedia article written by some 10 year old is not acceptable.  It is this type of thinking that is contributing to this mess we are in.


          4. Mortality rates

            Eric .. I scoured Wikipedia to no avail … All I could find was a research study which states;

            Mortality is another topic of research in police retirement. An extensive study of more than 2,000 officers in Buffalo, New York, found that the age-mortality rate for officers was, on average, 12 years lower than their civilian counterparts; health issues, such as cancer and heart disease, increased as officers drew closer to retirement; and the average life expectancy after retiring was 5.05 years less than that of people in other occupations. This research also revealed that officer suicides were three times higher and appeared to occur more often just before retirement, a possible indicator of the stress of retirement at a time period when maladaptive factors can form.

            John M. Violanti, John Vena, and J. Marshall, “Disease Risk and Mortality Among Police Officers: New Evidence and Contributing Factors,” Journal of Police Science and Administration 14, no. 1 (1986): 17-23.

          5. useless data

            The quality of this 'research' looks very bad …unless you just misquoted it.  From the one paragraph quoted,


            "found that the age-mortality rate for officers was, on average, 12 years lower than their civilian counterparts;"

            What is an 'age-mortality rate'?  Do you mean age-specific or age-standardized mortality rates?  But those are expressed in deaths per population, not in years.


            Also, that study was a retrospective study of Buffalo,NY  police officers from 1950-1979 – who were  compared to the US White population.    Maybe Buffalo, NY is just an unhealthy place

            ( see this for data   about Buffalo from  2001-2006, which admittedly is still not an appropriate comparison group or time period)

            "In Buffalo, for example, mortality rates from heart disease are 20 percent higher than the New York State average. There is also a high prevalence of chronic disease among City residents leading to hypertension-related hospitalization rates that are 50 percent higher than the statewide average. Diabetes-related hospital admissions are 30 percent higher than the overall rate in the state."


          6. Research
            Thanks for the up-to-date and unimpeachable research.

            It seems crazy for us to even have a defined benefit plan for police officers when they only can expect to collect benefits for five years before they kick the can. To me, this is another effective argument for switching from a DB plan to a 403B plan. That way, the accumulated assets in the participant’s account can pass on to the spouses and the children of those legions of police officers who tragically commit suicide just before they reach retirement age. This seems like a no-brainer to me. Frankly, I’m shocked that the unions fight so strongly for a defined benefit system that appears so serve their membership so poorly.

          7. “So the collection of those

            "So the collection of those benefits, on average, is four years…"

            Pensions are paid to surviving spouses and children.  So like I said, voodoo math.  The system is a mess.

    – pages 18 and 19

          8. 403B
            Thanks for the clarification. I had no idea that I had it so good in the private sector what with my social security and my 401K. I feel terrible that you have to contribute over 9% of your salary to your pension. That truly sucks. Your post also appears to imply that your 9% contribution fully funds your pension and that the taxpayers dont contribute to that in any way, shape or form. If that is in fact true, it allmost seems cruel. I feel like we should contribute at least a little bit.

            I feel so sorry for your situation that I propose that you receive the same kind of “401 K” benefits that that have enriched me so. I believe they call these plans 403B plans.

            We can scrap that lousy pension of yours, replace it with the rock-solid social security plan and some sweet defined contribution benefits. I assume that you would jump at that opportunity since we have it so good in the private sector. Does that sound good to you?

          9. 403B, 401K and all that

            So I guess the argument is that since most Americans have insufficient retirement plans that can't be counted on to last – like 403b or 401k plans – then public employees should have bad retirement plans too.

            And since many Americans have bad health insurance, public employees should have bad health insurance too.

            Maybe we should just extend good retirement plans to the private sector too…it is certainly possible to strengthen Social Security (which is more efficient than the private plans, which just create a lot of commission income for banks) and maybe a public option for healthcare (which also would be more efficient than Blue Cross or Aetna)..

            Oh never mind…better to just make more people poorer in our race to the bottom.

          10. Good points

            I was surprised you didn't refute the 4.2% claim with respect to Social Security. This year it's 4.2% for the employee's share, but every other year it is 6.2%, PLUS 6.2 from the employer, for a grand total of 12.4% (up to the income limit). And that 12.4% will turn into a cool thousand bucks a month (inflation adjusted) for those of us Gen Xers who live to hit 74. The union apologists should be given credit for their ability to distort the truth.

          11. Re; 403B

            Please do not put words in my mouth ….  I NEVER insinuated that public employees fully fund their own pensions. Just as private sector workers, there are contributions from the employees and the employer. Contributions for public sector employees are 9% while private sector  employees contribute contribute 4%. Private sector employers are MANDATED to pay their contributions ( as are public sector employers who contribute to IMRF ). However, for public employees who are not in the IMRF, public employers can decide not to pay their contributions and then blame the employees when the pension system is under-funded. 

            As far as your gracious offer to contribute to the pensions, let me ease your guilt. Taxpayers (you .. and yes even ME) contribute to the pensions of public sector employees. Instead of using those funds WE have paid over the years, the city decided to not pay the full amount over the last three decades. Now that the bill is coming due, they cry poor and threaten US taxpayers with having to raise OUR property taxes to cover the under-funding situation.  Instead of blaming the employees for wanting what they were promised when they signed on, why don't you use your efforts and demand accountability from the people who got us to this point? It is not the employees fault the city under-funded the pension. The employees have no control over this. There was even a lawsuit against the city in the 80's regarding the lack of under-funding. The courts ruled that the city did not have to pay the appropriate amounts as long as their contributions were fully funded at the date set in the pension code. So now as that date approaches, they now have a problem. Once again, not the fault of the employees. That is just like saying it is your fault the federal government is having an issue with social security. How dare those retirees demand their retirement benefits. Like I said, the problem has not been caused by the employees. 

            As far as your generous suggestion regarding the 403B, had you bothered to research the plans, you would have seen the IRS definition of this fabulous plan you suggest is;

            A 403(b) plan, also known as a tax-sheltered annuity (TSA) plan, is a retirement plan for certain employees of public schools, employees of certain tax-exempt organizations, and certain ministers.

            The majority of public sector employees are not eligible to participate. The plan that they can participate in is the 457k … which as I mentioned before, is fully funded by the employee. There is NO matching contributions like some private sector employers offer. 

            Finally, there was never a criticism of the current pension in my post. I agree that pensions are a benefit, a good benefit, and they are a perk of public service.  Those perks also come with substantial risks that many of the private sector employees do not face. There are trade-offs in a lot of jobs, that is a fact of life. Should you want to enjoy the benefits offered to the public sector employees, feel free to apply for a job. There are a lot of cities around the area that are hiring … or even the military! They, too, have good benefits and pensions for careers of service!

             My original post was a comparison of public versus private sector retirements. I also wanted to, again, cite some of the many misconceptions people have about benefits of public versus private employees. 

  3. YES! They should all be voted

    YES! They should all be voted out.

    But everyone knows that they won't. The bigwigs in charge of them will not allow that to happen. Or if they do allow it to happen it will just be a new face with the same bigwig pulling the strings from behind the scene.

    Independent runners who are not controlled by someone else stand no chance in city elections. We have seen this before on numerous occasions where two people run and the one being sponsored by the people higher up wins.

    I love Evanston but I view it as a lost cause. They will continue to make their own poor decisions until either the bigwigs get caught doing something illegal, the political environment changes (I doubt it) or they realize they have dug themselves so far into a hole they cannot escape.

  4. Evanson’s debt and choices

    Enlightening story and comments. The City is in very serious financial condition. Basic services continue to be privatized, at an additional cost to residents; our beloved institutions continue to be placed on the chopping block, and the City continues to waste staff time and taxpayers dollars on things residents haven't agreed to. Government officials must be held accountable for their actions and there must be transparency and a timely release of information. Case in point, the half billion offshore wind farm and any more of the City's time, money and personnel is not in the resident's best interests.  

  5. We’ve been on the hunt

    We've been on the hunt for a home in Evanston since April but this makes me think we should reconsider our search criteria. 

  6. It comes down to obligation

    Regardless of your personal feelings about the current pension system the bottom line is that the City of Evanston's elected officials past and present had an obligation to fund the pensions. Yet they continue to unfund them and they continue to cry poor. And somehow they find money to buy buildings, give away beach passes, give money to businesses to upgrade their facades, and run other businesses out of town. And somehow all of that is ok with some people. Unreal! 

  7. Increase the denominator

    I think we are all missing an obvious solution:


    Our per capita debt can be lowered to Skokie levels if we simply increase our denominator – increase the population of Evanston.  

  8. To do: Raise parking fees


    Raise parking fees tremendously

    Ticket speeders on Chicago ave.

    Rezone some of lower income area to build more economical office space and bring more businesses who can't pay high rates in downtown.

    Add bike lanes to reduce congestion.

    Sue NU to pay fair share.

    Cut 20% of city workers who don't bring in revenue.

    Tax hospitals more.

    Raise property taxes 3%.

    Charge $.25 per plastic bag and apply to city coffers

    Tax NU. (did I say that already?)

  9. Does Wally Bobkiewicz grasp reality?

    According to the Chicago Tribune, Evanston is in $700 million in debt.  Bankruptcy is a near certainty.  In the middle of this abyss  Bobkiewicz says he is hiring a new chief financial officer.  It is incredulous to believe that any experienced chief financial officer would consider Evanston.  It would be a suicide mission.  Bobkiewicz’s 311 experiment seems like a near criminal act of fraud in light of the enormous debt buden.  All of the raises he keeps giving to the unions seem insane.  I don’t think Bobkiewicz is working for the best interest of Evanston.

Leave a comment
The goal of our comment policy is to make the comments section a vibrant yet civil space. Treat each other with respect — even the people you disagree with. Whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims.

Your email address will not be published.