Finley: Wayne commissioners have best part-time job

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

It has to be the best part-time job in Michigan.

Wayne County commissioners meet just twice a month in full session, and another couple of times in their assigned committees. Many hold second jobs.

And yet they’re paid nearly $70,000 a year, just 10 grand less than state legislators, who are considered full-time employees of the state.

The 15 Wayne commissioners are part time under the charter that was passed in the early 1980s. The hope of the charter framers, in part, was that making the commissioners part time would give them less opportunity to abuse their offices and the county taxpayers through self-dealing, corruption and influence peddling.

Well, that didn’t work.

While the workload hasn’t changed over the years, the commissioners have steadily bumped up their pay, so that now it would be considered a full-time wage for most workers in Wayne County.

But if it were just the excessive salary — double that $70,000 and Wayne County commissioners are on par with a United States congressman — it might be something taxpayers could shrug off.

The real and lasting costs to the busted county treasury are the benefits the commissioners have claimed for themselves.

Part-time county workers are not eligible to join the pension system — unless they are commissioners.

In 2010, the commission concocted a scheme to take advantage of a loophole in the pension system and allow themselves to qualify for a rich and rapid retirement benefit.

An investigative report last year by WXYZ-TV Ch. 7 revealed some of the pension jackpots. Commissioner Joe Palamara is guaranteed a lifetime pension of $33,660. Laura Cox, a former commissioner and now a state representative, gets $32,000 a year. Retired commissioner Bernard Parker took accelerated payments of $170,000, and then converted to a $27,000 annual benefit. Commissioner Jewel Ware’s pension will be $42,900.

These pensions are not for a lifetime of service; some were awarded after just a few years in office, and can be collected as soon as commissioners leave office, regardless of age.

The sleaziest part of the deal is that the scheme excused commissioners from a vote on the pension transfers. Instead, they named the commission chair — then Edward Boike — as their personnel director and gave him the power to approve the benefit.

Gary Woronchak assumed that role when he became chairman in 2011, and reopened the window for commissioners who had missed the boondoggle deadline. He’s in line for $32,688 — for life.

Last week, the county commissioners added to their bounty by voting themselves lifetime health care benefits, a move Woronchak incredulously says was made to protect the county from lawsuits.

This self-enrichment comes at a time when the county is trying to avoid bankruptcy and its workers are taking pay and benefit concessions.

Taxpayers should not let this stand. Concerned citizens should seek a charter amendment to slash commission pay and deny them pensions and health care. It needs to be on the 2016 ballot.


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