Jacques: Free lifetime benefits? Bad idea, Warren
You’ve got to hand it to the Warren City Council. Outgoing members pulled a fast one and almost got away with it. Luckily for city taxpayers, it looks like a measure to give council members free lifetime health care is about to get axed.
Back in September, the City Council voted unanimously on a last-minute amendment to the standard renewal of health care benefits for city employees. This add-on was a sweet deal for members of council — most of whom were term limited. Think of it as a going away present to themselves.
This kind of shady self-dealing used to be much more common in Michigan, but it's become increasingly rare, with a priority placed on government transparency. The fact it did happen should be a wake-up call not only in Warren but in all communities: Pay attention to what your elected officials are doing.
Apparently City Council members need to pay more attention, too. In the aftermath of the vote, several members are claiming they didn’t realize what they were supporting. Councilman Ron Papandrea, the only holdover from the former council that took the vote, said he “didn’t really think about it.”
Even Mayor James Fouts, who calls this incident “outrageous,” says he didn’t find out about what the council did until a few weeks ago. No one brought it to his attention ahead of time — nor after. He says the council slipped in the benefits deal so quickly even the city attorney who was at the September meeting didn’t realize what it had done.
And that means Fouts technically missed his limited window to veto the measure. But this week he says he did it anyway.
A nearly completely overhauled City Council agrees the benefits should go. Six of the seven council members are new, as of the Nov. 5 election, and plan to rescind the lifetime benefits at their Nov. 26 meeting. They are researching what exactly they need to do to ensure the measure is gone for good.
Pat Green, the new council president, says he’s committed to fixing the former council’s mess.
“I’m very disappointed this got missed,” he says. “We just want to correct it.”
The free health care benefits and dental coverage would have applied not only to council members who had served eight years, but also to their dependents.
Warren officials already get a pretty nice deal. For a part-time council, they are paid about $30,000 a year and qualify for health care benefits while they are serving. Even Detroit City Council members, who are full time, no longer get promised health benefits in retirement. Following bankruptcy, perks for all Detroit employees were cut drastically.
Many cities in Michigan are facing similar burdens from pensions and retiree health care. Those unfunded liabilities are a drag on local governments, and most are struggling to find their way out of it.
Warren, which is the third largest city in the state, already faces large liabilities — it’s in the top 10 for both unfunded retiree health care and pensions, according to state data.
Fouts says the council’s “golden parachute” was “very shortsighted” and placed the “financial stability of the city in jeopardy.”
Warren residents ought to make sure City Council members follow through and overturn these costly benefits.
“It could have a disastrous effect,” says Fouts.