Detroit —The indicted father of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is among the 51 former high-ranking Wayne County officials who receive lifetime health benefits from the county, according to documents released Tuesday.
Executive Robert Ficano rescinded the benefit for new hires last fall, amid a public outcry over severances and other payments to his aides. But numerous current county employees are in line to get the benefit when they retire, and even some of the recipients can't defend it.
"It's better than the state health care plan. It's about $20 co-pays for doctor visits — no dental or optical — and my children are covered until they're 26," said state Rep. Phil Cavanagh, D-Redford Township, a former county commissioner.
"As a taxpayer, I firmly believe the county isn't in a position to offer this anymore."
The Detroit News received the list through the Freedom of Information Act. It reads like a Who's Who in Wayne County politics — including a handful who have run afoul of the law.
Kilpatrick, a former chief of staff under former Executive Edward McNamara, faces a racketeering trial with his son, Kwame Kilpatrick, this year.
Wilbourne Kelley, a former airport official who went to prison for extortion, also gets lifetime health care. So does Emma Bell, a former county official who pleaded guilty to tax evasion last year and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the Kilpatrick trial.
Arthur Blackwell II, who faces charges related to his compensation as Highland Park emergency manager, gets the perk — but said it isn't that great.
"Obviously, having health care is a benefit, but you don't get a lot," said Blackwell, a former commissioner.
Other recipients include recently resigned chief of staff Matt Schenk and assistant executive Nader Fakhouri; Wayne County Airport Authority members Charlie J. Williams and Mary Zuckerman; former airport director David Katz, political consultant Eddie MacDonald, and former commissioners Susan Hubbard and Chris Cavanagh, the brother of Phil.
Schenk left the county in March to become chief operating officer of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, a job that pays $194,000 a year. He said he intends to use the county health benefits until he's covered by the water department and noted he pays premiums and deductibles.
"It's not free," Schenk said.
The county is self-insured, so calculating the cost of the benefit is tricky. But generally, the health policies cost the county $2,500 for individuals and $5,500 for families. Deductibles are about $2,000 and when recipients turn 65, Medicare becomes their primary insurance.
The benefit was created in 1994 under McNamara for top aides to the county executive, commissioners and key officials who served at least eight years.
The perk was among many that made Wayne County's benefits among the best in government, including a 5-1 match to 401(k) pensions and a plan that offered three years of free health insurance for elderly dependents of county elected officials.
Ficano has moved to end the pension donations' match and elderly health care vanished in 2001, but lifetime benefits for officials endured after other governments dropped similar programs.
The Legislature ended retirement health care for lawmakers last year but the law grandfathered in several legislators.
At one point, Oakland and Macomb counties offered free lifetime health care to employees after eight years of service. Oakland dropped the program in 1985 and now requires 25 years. Macomb ended it for new hires in 2006 and now requires 15 years.
A handful of former aides, including former chief development officer Turkia Mullin and Ralph Kinney, a former assistant executive who was fired in 2007, are suing Ficano to restore the benefit.
Kinney worked 20 years for the county but was denied health care when he was fired in 2007. He said it's "preposterous" that some officials who get the benefit worked less than eight years or didn't oversee departments.
Kinney accused Ficano of using the benefits to reward allies and punish those who cross him.
"It's absolutely vindictive," Kinney said.
Three former Ficano aides served less than eight years. Williams, a former deputy executive, lasted less than three. W. Curt Boller, a former assistant executive, served about three years, while Mullin's predecessor, Mulugettu Birru, lasted about 41/2 years.
Ficano spokeswoman June West said the former personnel director, Tim Taylor, allowed Williams and Boller to qualify by counting their other government service. Williams was a Detroit mayoral aide, while Boller is a former Brownstown Township supervisor.
Williams uses Medicare as his primary insurance and said he's never used the county plan.
"I wouldn't have got the benefits if I wasn't entitled to them under the rules," Williams said.
Boller could not be reached for comment.
Birru received the benefit as part of his severance.
Six current commissioners are also due to receive the perk once they leave the panel.
Detroit News Staff Writers Mike Wilkinson, Karen Bouffard and Holly Fournier contributed.