Taylor's mayoral election is a case study in why it's nearly impossible to get politicians to enact common sense reforms to save taxpayers money.
Cameron Priebe is facing an unexpectedly stiff re-election challenge from Councilman Jeff Lamerand, who is backed by both the local and state police and firefighter unions.
The cops and firefighters are targeting Priebe because he is trying to reduce budget-busting pension benefits in Taylor. He also is a leading advocate for reforming Public Act 312, a state law that gives a steep advantage to public safety unions in contract negotiations by requiring binding arbitration decisions on unresolved issues.
"All I want to do is bring sanity back to the way we calculate pensions," Priebe says.
Insane is the right word for the retirement packages paid by the Downriver community.
Pensions for Taylor police officers and firefighters are based on their highest annual earnings in two of their last five working years. Those top two years are averaged, and the pension is set at roughly two-thirds of the total.
Average base police pay is $60,000 a year. If the pensions were calculated on that number, retiring officers would collect $40,000 year. But that's not how it works in Taylor.
Officers are allowed to bank unused sick days over their career and cash them out at retirement.
That's driven up pensions to an average of 146 percent of base pay for police officers, and 122 percent for firefighters. So officers with base salaries of 60 grand a year are walking away with pensions of $75,000 to $100,000 a year, plus another $15,000 for health care.
And it gets worse. Prior administrations reduced the retirement eligibility requirement to 20 years from 25 years. Taylor officers are retiring in their early to mid-40s and will likely collect checks for 35 years or more. The average retiree will cost the city $4 million in lifetime benefits.
Under state law, those benefits are fully funded by automatic increases in property taxes. Fifteen years ago, the tax rate to support police and fire pensions was 1.5 mills; today it's 6 mills. For the average Taylor homeowner, that's an extra $400 a year.
"If we don't fix this, our only choice will be to shut our parks and rec centers and lay off active police officers," says Priebe, who is seeking a second four-year term. He served a previous 16-year stint as mayor before leaving to work for a decade in the Wayne County Executive's Office.
The Taylor contract is in part a result of the state arbitration law that Priebe wants to change. A bill that would have forced the arbitrator to consider the ability of a community to pay the financial award was defeated in the state House of Representatives by just one vote last month. That has alarmed the unions and explains why they have joined the move to unseat Priebe.
"They're trying to send a message here to politicians who challenge them," Priebe says. "If they can stop me, then maybe Livonia, Rochester Hills and other communities will leave them alone."
Priebe -- who also is a former Taylor patrolman and gets a city pension of $42,000 a year -- "quite generous," he says, "but nothing like we're giving today" -- understands voters have a soft spot for their local cops and firefighters.
But he knows the pension structure is unsustainable and unfair to taxpayers.
"In 25 years, Taylor is facing a $1 billion pension problem if we don't act now," he says.
But correcting even the most outrageous abuses of taxpayer dollars is a Herculean task. Nobody gets off the gravy train without a fight.
This comes down to voters. If they allow themselves to be manipulated by the special interests that are bleeding municipal budgets dry, then they can't complain about higher taxes and fewer services.
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