Editorial: Wayne commissioners enrich their health care

The Detroit News

While county Executive Warren Evans is trying to sell employees on the necessity of shared sacrifice to stave off bankruptcy, Wayne County’s elected commissioners are reverting to form and stuffing their own pockets.

After a financial emergency was declared last summer, the county signed a consent agreement with the state designed to give Evans and the commission time to balance their budget and develop a plan to resolve accumulated deficits.

Wayne has an unfunded pension liability between $850 million and $940 million. It’s annual structural deficit is $52 million, and its bond rating stands at junk status.

In other words, the county is flat broke and has to cut every non-essential dollar in spending.

A key to Evan’s quest to avoid bankruptcy is to wring $230 million in savings over the next four years from payroll, benefits and other spending cuts. The mission is also to eliminate the $1.3 billion long-term health care liability for active and retired workers.

Just six weeks ago, the county finalized with a vote by the commission new employee contracts that substantially cut pension and health care benefits.

Under the new pacts, retiree health care is eliminated entirely for those with less than 20 years of service. Those who’ve been employed more than 20 years will get small monthly stipends to help them purchase private policies. That will save $500 million over time.

Active employees accepted health insurance plans with much higher deductibles, for additional savings.

It is tough medicine, but reflective of the county’s depleted financial resources.

But what’s good for the working stiffs won’t fly with the political elites who occupy the county board offices.

Not even two months after approving those concessions for employees, the 15 commissioners voted to enshrine their own lifetime health care benefits, and those of their appointees, into law (only Richard LeBlanc of Westland dissented). They will be the only group of Wayne County employees whose retirement benefits are not reduced. They included the county executive and his appointees in the exemption, over Evans’ objection.

Evans had tried to reduce the commission and staff benefits through executive order to match those of other employees. The commission not only rejected that demand, but guaranteed that they and their staffers would enjoy in retirement the same benefits as active employees. Nearly 100 commissioners and their staffers are covered.

And they will be eligible to collect the benefit after just eight years in office or in the job, regardless of their age when they leave.

The vote is a total defiance of the reality of Wayne County’s fiscal crisis. But it fits into the commission’s history of self-enrichment at the expense of taxpayers.

Many of the current commissioners took advantage of a scheme cooked up by the Robert Ficano administration that allowed certain elected officials and appointees to buy into the county pension system, and collect the benefit after just eight years, again regardless of age.

Keep in mind that the commissioners are part time. And while their workload meets the part-time test — they meet as a full body just twice a month — their pay and benefits certainly don’t. Over the years they’ve increased their annual pay to nearly $70,000, with additional stipends for special assignments.

County commissioners continue to take a disproportionate share of the county’s dwindling resources, while approving contracts that ask painful concessions from county workers. It is unfair. They should reconsider and vote to remove their hoggish snouts from the public trough.