August 28, 2012 at 1:00 am

Wayne retirees' payout shrinks

5,500 to split $1M; county panel cites legal cost concerns

Detroit — Wayne County retirees will receive a substantially lower cost of living payout — or 13th check — this year, in part because of fears of legal costs about the controversial program.

The county's pension board on Monday voted 7-1 to divide $1 million among 5,500 retirees. That's significantly less than the $3.9 million distributed last year.

The payout is based on years of service and age, and one board member said it will be less than $200 this year for many retirees.

The check has been divisive for years, and the pension board is fighting Executive Robert Ficano in the Court of Appeals because he dipped into the fund to pay $32 million of the county's annual contribution to the system.

Pension board member Chuck Bonza said officials wanted to be conservative with this year's payment because of legal fees.

Board member Elizabeth Misuraca cast the lone vote against the payment, saying it is too low in a county where the average pension is $23,145.

Misuraca said this year's check won't be enough to "buy groceries" for many retirees.

The payment began in the 1980s as a replacement for cost-of-living pension increases and longevity pay.

Many retirees depend on the checks, said Anthony Fuller, a 2008 retiree.

"They are definitely going to be upset," Fuller said.

In recent years, the pension system has struggled. It is funded at 49 percent, far less than comparable public funds, and its value has sunk by $340 million since 2008. Ficano's staff blames the troubles on the board's investments and the 13th check, which has paid pensioners $391 million since 1986.

Ficano spokeswoman June West on Monday said it's "disappointing" board members continued the payment "despite their abysmal investment performance."

Pension officials say they've made recent investment gains and argue its Ficano's retirement deals that drained the system. They voted Monday to hire an attorney to investigate recent early-out deals.

cmacdonald@detnews.com

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