Column: Secure our first responders’ futures
As the chief administrative officer and manager of the City of Port Huron, I oversee 52 police and 33 firefighters, as well as 220 full-time public employees, and 369 pension beneficiaries.
That’s why I’m concerned about Michigan’s unfunded pension liabilities.
In Port Huron, our unfunded pension liability is $71 million and our unfunded Other Post-Employment Benefits liability is $48 million. However, we have worked with our local partners and collective bargaining units to reform our system and have made significant progress. Our unions are our partners and are working with us.
But when I think of Michigan’s unfunded liabilities, I don’t merely think of this problem in terms of abstract actuarial or mathematical terms, I think of faces and names and families, good-hearted citizens whom I see at our city’s coffee shops, restaurants and community gathering places each day. And supporting reforms is supporting public workers and police and fire.
Should we just stand idly by and allow these pension and healthcare systems across the state go bankrupt? Should we stand by and do nothing and put at risk the benefits so many families rely on?
Indeed, no. We must support our public employees. We must also ensure we keep the promises made to those who have served our citizens with honor and integrity, oftentimes in the most difficult of circumstances. They put their lives on the line to protect us, and that’s why we must keep our word to them.
To do this, we must be honest and true to the challenges we face. Hiding, masking or downplaying the challenge of unfunded liabilities is a slap in the face to those public servants and their families. Communities such as Hamtramck did that for years; then one day those public servants and retirees woke up to learn that their healthcare benefits had been slashed. In Detroit, men and women who worked their entire lives awoke one day to slashed pension and healthcare benefits. That’s immoral and unethical. These types of stories can be found across our state, and it’s a black eye on all Michiganians.
Inaction and indecision will have devastating effects on current public servants and retirees. But the next generation of Michiganians will pay a significant toll as well.
Instead of our children and grandchildren using their talents and treasures to build a more hopeful and brighter future, they will pay off the unsettled debts and unkept promises made by the last generation.
We must come together today to put mechanisms in place to identify troubled communities early on. We must develop standardized assumptions and realistic expectations in pension and OPEB valuations that communities use to budget and plan for the future. And when we identify troubled communities, we should give local leaders and local bargaining groups the resources and time to develop a plan of action to ensure their obligations are solvent and the promises being made can be kept. That’s what the package of reforms bills that recently passed the House and Senate attempt to do.
For those rare circumstances where the troubled communities fail to protect and fund the promises being made, the state should have the ability to intervene, before more workers, retirees and their families sustain more harm.
We must act to keep our promises and to protect the next generation. Supporting reform isn’t anti-worker or anti police and fire. It’s not disrespectful; doing nothing to secure their future is.
James Freed is the city manager of Port Huron.