Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
Detroit —Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano has crafted a special severance plan for about 300 county political appointees that could pay them almost a half-year's salary if they quit around election time.
The payouts of up to 24 weeks' pay are unprecedented among Metro Detroit governments and provide further ammunition to critics who say Wayne County operates by its own, lucrative rules.
Ficano unveiled the plan in December, and 40 appointees got windfalls this spring when they took the severances as well as a separate early retirement offer. A spokeswoman for Sheriff Benny Napoleon said the plan could be considered "excessive." Prominent labor attorney Deborah Gordon called it a "sweet deal."
"There seems to be a pattern here of giving his appointees these very generous perks that you rarely see in the public sector," said Gordon, who called the payouts a severance.
"This could be very costly to the county," she added.
The FBI already is investigating a $200,000 severance to Ficano's former economic development director, Turkia Mullin. The other payouts — which topped $50,000 for some employees — come as the county with about 4,000 workers wants employees to take pay cuts of up to 20 percent.
Ficano unveiled the program one month after his re-election last year. But he said Wednesday he's not wedded to it. The program is available to political appointees of elected officials during election years or if their bosses leave mid-term.
Last year, appointees of the executive and sheriff were eligible because those officials were up for re-election. It's available for appointees of the clerk, register of deeds, treasurer and prosecutor around the time of their re-election cycles.
"As times change, we will look at anything that needs to be revised to better serve our citizens," Ficano said.
His staff said the plan was rolled out to help thin employee ranks. But 20 employees who took advantage of the buyouts this spring already are back on the payroll as contractors or part-timers, Matt Schenk, Ficano's chief of staff, said last week. But this morning, Pat Dostine, deputy press secretary for Ficano, said 20 were not rehired, although he couldn't give an exact figure of how many were but said it was "rare."
Some who took the money qualified for a separate retirement incentive that allowed employees to retire in their mid-50s with as little as 20 years of service, rather than 25 years. Some of those pensions paid $70,000 to $159,500.
In 2010, the average county retiree drew a pension of $22,373, county records show.
Several staffers take payout
Among those taking advantage of the perk was Tim Taylor, the former human resources director who helped author the new policy.
"It just happened that way. I was supposed to retire earlier," said Taylor, a 30-year employee who was let go last week from a county contracting job for his role in Mullin's severance.
Taylor, 56, took his extra pay and used it to boost his average annual compensation, which raised his pension to $117,839. Taylor's successor with the county, Georgetta Kelly, is paid $128,000. Taylor also secured a contract to make 90 percent of his pre-retirement pay as a part-time employee, earning more than $50,000 a year.
The appointees had until April 1 to take advantage of the program. Among those who did and their annual pension payments:
Bella Marshall, former county chief operating officer, $80,908.
Dinah Tolbert, former public information officer, $85,454.
Ernest Johnson, an executive assistant to Ficano, $76,826.
Sue Hamilton-Smith, director of children and family services, $70,760.
Daniel Chaney, director of juvenile services, $59,212.
Officials for the city of Detroit and Oakland or Macomb counties say they don't give any similar payouts for political appointees.
"Nothing at all," said Eric Herppich, director of the Macomb County human resources and labor relations department.
Bob Daddow, deputy Oakland County executive, said he's "never seen anything like" it.
Ficano's staff did not respond to specific questions about the reasoning for the political appointee payout, but Schenk said the early retirement incentive was a way to trim the appointee ranks. Ficano now has about 180 at-will employees. County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak said he doesn't "see a reason for this" and didn't know about the program until asked about it this week by The Detroit News.
"It could be perceived as yet another excess in Wayne County," he said.
"My gut tells me if they don't have a good explanation, I would strongly ask (Ficano) to remove it. It's time to end the excesses in Wayne County and show the taxpayers we are responsible stewards of their tax money."
Sheriff may ask for change
The program was added to the county's benefit plan for non-union employees as of Dec. 1, one month after Ficano was re-elected to his third term.
An appointee is eligible for a payout of two weeks for every year of service up to 24 weeks if:
The employee leaves between Nov. 1 of the last year of the elected official's term and April 1 of a new term.
The employee leaves within three months of the elected official vacating the office in the middle of a term.
Taylor said the offer was needed to keep them on through election cycles. After former Executive Edward H. McNamara announced his intentions not to run for re-election in 2002, a number of appointees left, Taylor said.
"And we had nobody to run government," he said. "It was bantered around by a number of individuals to make sure people didn't bail."
"The idea was really to protect the county."
Napoleon has 33 appointees and issued a statement through his press secretary, Paula Bridges, doubting the necessity of the plan.
"Sheriff Napoleon questions whether the severance benefit could be considered excessive in today's economic climate and is not ruling out that he may advocate for a modification of this provision in the future," Bridges wrote in an email.
Prosecutor Kym Worthy said she can't block her 31 appointees from accepting the offer, no matter what she thinks about it.
"There are provisions in the executive benefit plan and employee contracts that apply to my office that I don't agree with, but I cannot impose my will on that," Worthy wrote in an email.
"These are Wayne County benefits that I must follow; I have no choice."
Officials in the offices of county Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz and Clerk Cathy Garrett said they weren't aware of new payout language. Wojtowicz has a dozen appointees, and Garrett's office has six.
Both Woronchak and Ficano moved this month to end a generous county benefit, as of Oct. 1: lifetime health and life insurance benefits for top appointees and elected officials after eight years of service.
Gordon, the labor lawyer, said part of the nature of being a political appointee is knowing that there's a risk of losing the post at election time without parting benefits.
"You know and understand that as an appointee," Gordon said.