10-14-11; Are Some Illinois Governments in a Death Spiral and We Don’t See It? The Shocking Story of the IL Firefighter with a Runny Nose and Watery Eyes

Illinois government is something of a smoking mess on a lot of levels. Right now, estimates are

·         The State of IL is running an $8.3 billion dollar deficit by the end of the next fiscal year, ending June 30, 2012. That deficit is in spite of billions received from the recent income tax increases!  http://www.civicfed.org/sites/default/files/State%20of%20Illinois%20Enacted%20Budget%20FY2012.pdf

·         The City of Chicago is running a deficit of over $600 million, based on an overall budget of $3.2 billion. The City’s deficit is projected to be $800 million within two years.  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-29/chicago-s-budget-deficit-widens-50-million-to-635-7-million-mayor-says.html

·         The Chicago Public Schools have a deficit separate from the City of Chicago expected to be $720 million. http://www.suntimes.com/news/4470528-460/chicago-public-schools-deficit-up-to-720-million.html

·         The Chicago Transit Authority has a deficit expected to be $277 million dollars. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/04/cta-chief-agency-faces-27_n_994708.html

One reason we see for all these depressing deficits are pensions, benefits and basically entitlements. We keep seeing new and unprecedented ways for workers to get government money. We are confident our legislators and administrators have no idea what the cost is to the taxpayers. We are certain lots of free chickens being given to workers in some quarters are coming home to bust budgets.

We recently saw a claim for an Illinois firefighter we consider difficult to read. In Richter v. Village of Oak Brook, (No. 2-10-0114, opinion filed September 23, 2011) claimant was a firefighter who suffered from rhinitis. If you aren’t sure, rhinitis, commonly known as a stuffy nose, is the medical term describing irritation and inflammation of some internal areas of the nose. The primary symptom of rhinitis is nasal dripping. It is caused by chronic or acute inflammation of the mucous membrane of the nose due to viruses, bacteria or irritants.

The problem with rhinitis involving a firefighter is claimant could no longer continue as a firefighter—he became sensitive to dust and smoke. It appears clear he could work and be truly functional in lots of other jobs but he simply wasn’t cut out for fighting fires. In lots of other states, that wouldn’t be a problem.

In Illinois, when a firefighter or police officer develops a work-related condition or suffers an injury which means they can’t do police or fire work, we have a legal concept which allows them to claim they are “catastrophically injured.” For the uninitiated, this is a legal theory which simply means the worker can’t be a firefighter or police officer. Once they are found to be injured and can’t do their jobs, thereafter taxpayers have to pay for lifetime line-of-duty disability pensions at 65% of their highest salary on a tax-free basis. As the average Illinois firefighter makes $52,000 a year, claimant would get about $33,800 on a tax-free basis for life. If he is a 30-year-old with a 47-year life expectancy, that cost to the Village is $1,588,600.00. In our view, that is a lot of money for a runny nose and watery eyes.

Please remember the government largesse doesn’t mean they can’t perform any work or are what your mom and dad might think is catastrophically injured. They can work at normal jobs and still get the pension money. Basically, the Illinois legislature has never studied what it costs municipalities to provide all these benefits, even when lots of firefighters and police officers continue to get their pensions while they work at normal daily jobs and make a tidy post-government living.

In Richter, what is even more shocking is claimant asserted he had shoulder pain while fighting a fire. Fighting any fire is, by legal definition, considered an emergency. The Village settled all his WC claims together for the rhinitis and the shoulder problem. By so doing, the Appellate Court found claimant was not only entitled to a line-of-duty disability pension, on top of that, he was additionally entitled to lifetime family medical healthcare coverage. If you aren’t sure, a new study out today by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit research group that tracks employer-sponsored health insurance, shows the average annual premium for family coverage through an employer topped $15,000 in 2011. For a thirty-year-old firefighter with a 47-year life expectancy, that lifetime cost is $705,000. That number assumes the cost of family health coverage doesn’t go up. If health care coverage costs continue to surge, the expected cost to the Village of Oak Brook over the years may be $2-3 million dollars. Please be sure to notice these payments do not mean claimant cannot return to work and make a nice living on top of what he receives from the Village.

Please note we aren’t criticizing the Appellate Court ruling which basically followed Illinois law. Our problem is the whole system of entitlements that has no built-in cost controls and is lurching along without anyone watching the nickels and dimes. Someone in the Governor’s office, legislature or courts has got to wake up and smell the coffee and stop giving millions for runny noses.

We assert many government benefits sound simple and justified. We want firefighters and police officers to be taken care of when they suffer unforeseen and truly crippling or catastrophic injuries, particularly when working and endangering themselves in emergency settings to save innocent folks. However, when a firefighter with a runny nose and watery eyes costs taxpayers millions of dollars, it is not hard to understand why we are facing monster budget deficits and our readers have concerns about sustainability. We don’t want more anti-business taxes and increased tolls and fees to pay for things like this.

We appreciate your thoughts and comments. Please do not hesitate to post them on our award-winning blog. If you want a copy of the Appellate Court’s ruling, send a reply.