Ronald Booker teaches line dancing in a massive senior community in central Florida. If his $55,000 pension is reduced during the city's bankruptcy, Booker says he may have to sell his summer home in Howell, Mich. (Willie J. Allen Jr. / AP)
The Villages, Fla. — Ronald Booker wears a Detroit Police shirt on his chest and a Lions cap on his head. But his heart belongs to The Villages, a massive senior community in central Florida with so many amenities he calls it a “Disney World for retirees.”
The retired Detroit police officer can’t stop smiling as he leads a tour of the 55-and-up city. He points out the Cadillacs and Mercedes in parking lots of ornate community centers where he teaches line dancing, customized golf carts that can cost $25,000 and the 32 golf courses that residents play for free.
“My biggest decision now is what golf course to play next week,” says Booker, 70, from behind the wheel of an SUV adorned with Detroit Police bumper stickers. “Not bad for a boy from inner-city Detroit.”
If Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr reduces his $55,000 pension during the city’s bankruptcy, Booker says he may have to sell his summer home in Howell, Mich. In nearby Leesburg, Fla., another retired Detroit pensioner, Virginia Brown, wonders how she’d survive.
“I’d be up a creek. I don’t know how I’d pay the bills,” says the 81-year-old who gets by on a $10,000 pension from her deceased husband, William, a former Detroit Zoo worker.
Booker and Brown are separated by about 14 miles and tens of thousands of dollars. Detroit’s pensions average about $24,000. But they’re not the not the sole source of income for many of the 22,000 retirees, and city officials are considering whether all should equally share the brunt of pension cuts.
Orr this month shared with creditors a plan of adjustment to reduce the city's $18 billion liabilities, including $3.5 billion in the pension systems. Orr's plans included no specifics about pension cuts, in part because of ongoing, court-ordered mediation.
Also a plan is emerging to protect pensions and the Detroit Institute of Arts with $330 million from private foundations, $100 million from the museum and $350 million from the state.
In December, Orr's spokesman, Bill Nowling, said the city may look at "some type of scaling" to impose deeper cuts on younger retirees and those with larger pensions. Last week, he declined comment about whether such a plan would still be considered.
“Someone who is older may be more dependent on (pension) income when they are 75 rather than 55,” Nowling said in December. “They can’t go get another job. It’s something we may look at.”
Neither of the city’s two pension systems keep records about supplemental income and Orr won’t consider it when making cuts, said Nowling, who added that legal issues also prevent such means testing.
Non-uniform retirees in the General Retirement System average about $19,000, but Social Security brings them close to the Police and Fire average of about $31,000. Many officers, like Booker, served in the military and receive small government pensions.
And because Detroit allows workers to retire at any age after 25 years, many who began drawing pensions in their 40s and 50s worked other jobs for 10-20 years.
“If you are a police officer or a firefighter, many retired early and worked for another force. Many firefighters have side jobs because of their schedules,” Nowling said. “People look at that and say, ‘They can weather more of a cut.’ We can’t consider that.”
Pensioners are adamantly opposed to any cuts, and even some who would benefit from scaled reductions don’t like the idea.
“Little cut, big cut. It doesn’t matter: Right is right,” said Verna Blackwell, 62, of Detroit, who has a $24,000 pension after working 32 years for the police.
Cleolous Qualls, 70, a retired planning department official, also has a $24,000 pension and said he doesn’t think those with richer ones should sacrifice more.
“Anybody who takes a cut, it’s going to hurt because you are used to the money,” said Qualls of Detroit. “If you are the upper crust or lower crust, a cut’s a cut.”
Qualified for Social Security
Police and firefighters don’t get Social Security, but retirees like Bill Larsen qualified for it by working odd jobs after working for the city.
The former beat cop retired in 1976, moved to Palm Harbor, Fla., and collected golf balls for $1.72 an hour.
“A lot of us did it, we had to get our 40 quarters (of work) to get Social Security or Medicare,” said Larsen, 86, who has a pension of about $29,700.
Larsen worked for the city for 26 years and has collected a pension for 37 years. He’s not an anomaly: A Detroit News analysis of city records found that 7 percent of all retirees have drawn pensions for at least 30 years, receiving $500 million since retirement.
Nearly one in five retirees and their beneficiaries — 18 percent — have collected pensions for 25 years or more, The News found.
That’s partly because life expectancy rates have increased, but it also underscores the instability of the systems, Nowling said.
“Twenty-five and out makes sense for cops and firefighters,” he said. “You don’t want a 55-year-old guy running around chasing crooks. But it doesn’t make sense for people sitting at a desk.”
Bettie Buss, a retired city budget analyst, said she doesn’t fault workers for finding other income to ensure “comfortable retirements.” But she said the city should have added age limits for pensions.
In the late 1990s, the number of retirees surpassed the number of active employees in Detroit. Now, there are 9,400 city workers, less than half the number of retirees. The city’s tax base has plummeted to $9.4 billion from $14.7 billion in 1980.
“I don’t think the question ever arose: Was this system sustainable? It isn’t,” she said.
“Folks never looked far off. They just tried to make it work now. If the city had looked at the increased costs of growing retiree population and shrinking tax base, it would have been forced into doing some difficult things.”
Tina Bassett, spokeswoman for the General Retirement System that manages pensions for non-uniformed employees, said retirees made financial decisions based on pension promises from the city. “I feel for the pensioners. It’s their money. This is hard stuff,” she said.
'Solid retirement program'
Booker spent much of his career in Internal Affairs, leading a unit that enforced city rules requiring employees to live in Detroit. When he joined the Detroit Police in 1969, the pay was among the best in the state, he said.
“We had a solid retirement program,” Booker said. “It was a guarantee: You’ll never get rich, but you’ll be able to buy a house, get a decent education for your kids and a pension to live off.
“It was the American Dream. That’s why I joined the police. It wasn’t gambling. It wasn’t high risk. It was a nice, blue-collar job where you drink your beer, eat your pizza and you are cool.”
He was frugal, priding himself on driving old cars, living in a modest home in northeast Detroit and “always thinking for the future.” After retiring in 2000, he worked as a court officer for the state before leaving for Florida in 2007 upon the retirement of his wife, Toni, a fellow police officer.
They’ve soaked up all the amenities the Villages has to offer: participating in some of its 2,000 clubs, golfing three times a week and living the life Booker said he always dreamed.
“It’s a Shangri-La,” he said. “It ain’t heaven because we aren’t dead yet.”