The future of Detroit's pensioners at stake

Updated: Saturday, August 3 2013, 12:38 AM EDT
The future of Detroit
KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - It's a question financially troubled cities all over the U.S. are going to be paying close attention to, as Detroit tries to figure out who gets what in the wake of its declaration of bankruptcy two weeks ago.

What happens to the city's pensioners--those 23,000 people, with more to come--who rely on their monthly checks for survival?

Tom Van Howe has more in tonight's edition of Tom's Corner.

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When we on this side of the state think about Detroit, it's all too easy to remember the excesses and the decades of perceived political obstinacy flaunted by its leaders.

From individual limousines for school board members to the costly criminal behavior of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

We tend to think, 'Well, you guys created the mess you're in; you let it happen. You fix it.'

And by virtue of the deafening silence from Lansing and Washington on the issue of bailouts, we aren't alone.

But none of the 23,000 former city workers who rely on pensions now, nor any of the 9,000 or more who will be retiring someday with pensions as a key ingredient to their plans for a secure retirement had anything to do with the mismanagement that resulted in where things stand today.

They were police officers, firemen, linesmen, secretaries and so on. They worked for the city and as part of the package was the promise of retirement income. And its not as though the payouts are exorbitant. Police and fire: $30,000 a year.

Other city employees: about $19,000. Not enough to live a life of leisure with exotic vacations three times a year. But, its enough to help them live their lives with dignity.

And more than anything else—it was promised to them.

So now the city of Detroit may try to take that promise back.

The city owes a mind-bending $20 billion. It's trying to find ways to settle those debts for pennies to the dollar, but it would be an ethical blunder to do the same to pension recipients.

Detroit's Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, says the long-term pension liability is about $3.5 billion. And according to news reports, the city was a hundred million dollars short on its contribution to the pension fund.

Last year alone. Again—that's not the fault of the pensioners.

Attorney General Bill Schuette has jumped into the fray pledging to  defend the pensioners' constitutional right, under state law, to receive what they have coming. If Schuette is successful in making that argument stick, he'll become a hero to lot of people who have, perhaps, never heard of him.

But whether it remains merely a moral obligation, or an ironclad legal one; it's crystal clear the city of Detroit doesn't have the money.

And that means its going to fall to us—to you and me—the State of Michigan, to help make good on a multi-billion dollar promise the city of Detroit, on its own, cannot keep.

Why? Because, at the bottom line, we're all in this together, and  it is the right thing to do.

In this corner...I'm Tom Van Howe.
The future of Detroit's pensioners at stake
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