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Howes: Detroit pay-raise gambit defines 'bad optics'

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The pay-raise campaign for City Hall bosses is on hold — for now.

But the push for more cash by City Council President Brenda Jones and Clerk Janice Winfrey affirmed what skeptics say on Facebook posts and in e-mails: Despite a historic bankruptcy, too many Detroit leaders still don't get it.

If they did, their actions would show they understand the city needs to earn its way back to respectability by what it does and how it delivers basic services, not whether its elected officials a) get raises less than three months after exiting Chapter 9 or b) are compensated on par with similar-sized cities.

Last I checked, none of them — not Cleveland or Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington, D.C. — went bankrupt. Nor did they need a coalition of private donors and the state Legislature to back-fill city pensions because fund managers botched their jobs and the city didn't meet its obligations.

It takes a particular strain of gall to publicly seek raises as city pensioners begin to absorb cuts negotiated in bankruptcy. Demands like those are not just bad optics; they're a blindness and deafness familiar to those who've been watching Detroit politicians for way too long.

Leaders understand the power of symbolism; mere bosses focused on power often don't. For every streetlight replaced, every EMS unit or police cruiser that arrives quickly, there still is way too much evidence that the city has a very long way to go to do its job for the people who pay its bills.

Moreover, the bankruptcy produced five-year collective bargaining agreements between the city and its unions, by itself a landmark achievement in a long period marked by acrimony, Act 312 arbitration or both.

What would it say to city employees, to the cops and firefighters only starting to see new equipment and stable leadership, if the folks at the top get more while the rest are expected to live under their respective agreements for years to come?

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey

To leaders, the question answers itself, and it's all bad. To bosses with a sense of entitlement bordering on grievance, the pay flap is a manufactured issue disconnected from the hard facts: Detroit's elected officials are underpaid.

An "Elected Officials Salary Survey" memo produced by the city's human resources chief, Denise Star, shows the city's elected officials are under-compensated relative to their peers. That's one reason former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr boosted their pay by 5 percent before heading back to Maryland.

The survey finds that Mayor Mike Duggan is paid 11 percent less than his peers in a dozen other cities; that council members are paid 21 percent less; that the council president is paid 33 percent less; that the city clerk is paid 43 percent less.

"Salary survey results reveal that for the responding city with strong Mayor/full-time Council governance," Detroit's mayor, council, council president and city clerk "are paid below market for cities with comparable political structures," the memo says.

The mayor's pay slipped from $176,176 in 2004-2005 to $158,559 between 2010 and 2014 before rising 5 percent; council member pay dropped from $81,312 to $73,181 before rising 5 percent; the council president's pay slid from $85,456 to $76,911 before a 5 percent bump.

But they, and more precisely their predecessors, presided over a city that couldn't track its cash, couldn't pay its bills, couldn't fulfill terms of a consent agreement with the state Treasury, couldn't meet its pension obligations, couldn't keep the lights on or respond promptly to calls for police and fire.

Instead of raises, how about a municipal form of political probation? The terms would include continuing the restructuring plan confirmed in bankruptcy, balancing the budget, improving services, and barring raises until other employees are eligible for them, too.

All of that, and more, would begin to demonstrate that the new leadership is different from the old, that the psychic scars of bankruptcy and the lessons it should have taught endure longer than three short months.

There is no way to dress this up. The "Elected Officials Compensation Commission" has until April 20 to make recommendations, but it is not obligated to do so. Whatever the evidence of pay disparity, now is no time to boost salaries of elected officials who can always go work somewhere else.

"My role ... isn't so much to help the elected officials with their optics," says Samuel "Buzz" Thomas, a former state senator who chairs the compensation commission. "They have to deal with their own optics."

Yes, they do, and dropping this idea for now and at least several years to come is a good place to start.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at