Amid pay uproar, Benson pitches plan to help retirees
Detroit — Amid outrage over a compensation commission's recommendation to raise the pay of Detroit's City Council and clerk, a concept to create a charitable fund to bolster retiree pensions and health care is advancing.
Councilman Scott Benson said he and President Brenda Jones, who each sit on one of the city's two pension boards, have been working for several weeks on the mechanism that would allow employees, residents and others to donate to the city's most vulnerable pensioners.
Benson said the vision took a major step Wednesday when members of the General Retirement System approved his motion to have pension staff study the plan. The fund would also be dedicated toward two independent Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association trusts set up to fund health care for general and public safety retirees.
"It's still in the early stages," he said, but "it can really be a big piece of how we help to make the pensioners whole again."
Benson said the goal would be to have the fund established by the 2016-17 fiscal year. The plan would kick in the same month the pay of council members and City Clerk Janice Winfrey would rise 2.5 percent.
The salary increase was approved late Monday by the city's compensation commission. Officials have said it will go into effect within 30 days, unless the council chooses to reject it by a two-thirds vote.
Benson added he intends to contribute to the charitable fund if it's set up. Jones could not be reached for comment.
The prospect of raises, which comes just months after Detroit emerged from the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy, has met opposition from some residents and retirees who have asked Detroit's Elected Officials Compensation Commission to vote against any raises in pay.
Benson says he supports the salary increase and that it wasn't "unreasonable" to have the commission take a look at pay.
It's unclear if the council intends to take Monday's pay recommendation to a vote, but if it does, member Mary Sheffield says she would turn it down.
"I believe the people of Detroit, especially our retirees, would appreciate their elected officials standing with them during this period of compromise," Sheffield said in a written statement to The Detroit News. "Therefore, I will choose not to support the recommendations of the commission, if presented, and show my solidarity with those who have made the real sacrifices during the bankruptcy process."
The pay increase would officially kick in July 1, 2016. Mayor Mike Duggan, who did not request an increase, was not included in the recommendation.
The pay increases, when implemented, will bring Jones' annual salary to $82,776, and $78,761 per year for the other council members and Winfrey.
A tentative item on the council's formal agenda for Tuesday asks whether the council will accept the compensation commission's resolution, Winfrey said.
On Wednesday, a group of city clergy, residents and activists gathered urging council members to "do the right thing" and reject the compensation panel's recommendation.
"We believe that the City Council should serve the public trust by rejecting the raise," said the Rev. David Bullock of the Change Agent Consortium, a national coalition of civil rights organizations. "This isn't about attacking the City Council, it's about prioritizing citizens and putting citizens first."
Council members did not formally discuss the compensation recommendation at their Tuesday meeting. But afterward, Jones told reporters the compensation panel did the job it was asked to do.
"I asked them to look at council's pay. They looked at council's pay, and they did a resolution and that's what we will work with," Jones said, adding she didn't know if the recommendation would be voted on by the council.
In response to criticism expressed by members of the public during recent compensation commission meetings, Jones added: "The public has a right to make their comments and they made their comments."
Samuel Buzz Thomas, who chaired the commission, has said the compensation group reached the conclusion that salary increases for the city's elected officials should not be greater than those provided for other city employees in Detroit's bankruptcy plan of adjustment. Detroit has a four-year budget plan that runs through 2019.
"We thought it was really important that we follow the budget adopted coming out of bankruptcy," Thomas said after the vote.
The salaries of Detroit's elected officials were last increased by a city compensation commission in 2001-02.