The pension-system trustees and the municipal unions
A federal judge’srulingyesterday that Detroit worker pensions can be cut as part of the city’s bankruptcy case has angered city workers and shocked some of their supporters. Workers carrying signs outside the federal bankruptcy court yesterday blamed big banks for Detroit’s fiscal woes and demanded, “No cuts to our pensions.” They carried photos of Michigan governor Rick Snyder, painted to make him look like the devil. But if workers seek a culprit, they might look at the city’s pension-system trustees and the unions that were supposed to have influence over them. For years, the trustees granted annual bonuses to retirees and fattened worker-savings accounts with high guaranteed rates of return, siphoning crucial assets out of the retirement system, even as Detroit’s finances deteriorated. By one estimate, reported in theDetroit Free Pressin September, the bonuses and guaranteed-interest programs cost the pension funds nearly $2 billion in contributions and foregone investment returns—money that might have made the pension system well-funded today and allowed retirement benefits to remain untouched.
Most press accounts note that city-worker pensions in Detroit are modest. They rarely mention that, for two decades, the city supplemented those pensions with annual, so-called “13th checks” for retirees—an additional monthly pension payment. Pension-fund trustees—themselves city workers, retirees, city residents, and elected officials—handed out nearly $1 billion in these annual payments to retirees in the city’s general pension fund. The trustees defended the payments as rewards to workers in years when the pension system’s investment returns exceeded projections. In lean years, they justified them as social policy. “Many retirees relied on that check to pay their increased utility bills during the winter,” wrote an attorney for the city’s pension system in 2011. “Also remember that the money would go directly into the local economy.”