18 months later, perk Ficano said he'd end is still costing Wayne County

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Wayne County CEO Bob Ficano often dodges our questions, but now he's running away from his own words.

One of the first actions he said he'd take after 2011's severance scandal was ending a lucrative perk that paid him and about 200 other appointees $5 for every $1 they put towards their 401k, up to 3% of their salary.  They call it the 5-to-1 plan, and it outraged plenty.

"To give a 5-to-1 match is just irresponsible," said financial advisor Rick Bloom. 

Once that perk and others became news stories, Ficano scrambled to put out the fire, and promised action, declaring at a press conference in October, 2011: "I've written a letter to the retirement board to cut down the pension packages."

Ficano even issued a press release, saying the perk should be cut down to a 1-1 match, and that pricey benefits "can no longer be justified in the economic times we find ourselves in."

Apparently, though, times have changed. One year, 6 months and 5 days since Ficano said he'd end the perk, he hasn't changed a thing.  With each paycheck, his and his appointee's retirement accounts get a little fatter, and the county's troubles get even deeper.  

Wayne County's new jail is already $20 million over budget and counting.  Cuts to the prosecutor's office are letting accused criminals off the hook, and county custodians like Anthony Garner have been on temporary layoff for the last year-and-a-half.  It doesn't feel so temporary.

"Nieces and nephews birthdays coming up, you have nothing to give them," Garner said.

"You can't go to functions because you don't have nothing to wear.  You have nothing to give."

Ficano wouldn't agree to an interview about the perk, but in fairness, a look at his Facebook page will tell you he's been busy lately: in the last few weeks, he's posted photos of himself attending Tigers Opening Day, a bingo tournament with senior citizens and a bridal shop ribbon cutting.

So last Saturday, to accommodate his busy schedule, 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones caught up with him on his way into a health fair.

"You said you were ending the 5-to-1 match.  You never did. Why?" Jones asked.

"Absolutely right.  Misstated," Ficano said.

"We wanted to make sure we could change the whole retirement package."

So try to follow along with this: unlike 2011 Ficano who wanted to end the perk, 2013 Ficano says he wants to keep it going until he can change retirement benefits throughout the county. In other words, he'll let his and his appointee's 401k's get bigger, while he tries to lower retirement costs countywide.

"When I looked at it, I thought it would be the only thing we needed to change.  I realized that the county had its most difficulty with the pensions, we wanted to reform them at the same time," Ficano said.

What he doesn't mention, though, is that no one's made more money off the 5-to-1 perk than him.  He tops the list of 1,700 county employees: more than $464,000 in county contributions alone. 

In fact, some of the highest earners are Ficano's own appointees. More than a year ago, the county's retirement board told him that, for those 200 or so, he could kill the 5-to-1 match anytime he wants. 

"You can change 200 of them right now," Jones said.

"We want to make it across the board, because the 200 are the only ones taking the 10% pay cut right now," Ficano responded.

That's not true, though, points out union president Joyce Ivory.  She and about 1,500 county employees are still stomaching 10% cuts, which shouldn't be news to Ficano, the man who put them into place.

"My members lost homes, cars. Everything," Ivory said. 

Following our interview, Ficano's spokeswoman issued a clarification, saying: "These 200 refer to the largest group of appointees still taking the 10% pay cut. (Mr. Ficano) was not referring to the concessions other county workers have taken."

So now—553 days since he said he'd kill the 5-1 perk—the cost to this broke county continues to climb: by our estimate, about $2 million more than if Ficano had cut down like he promised.  For him, it means another $25,000 lining his 401k.  It's the same cost of the job Anthony Garner lost. 

"Hopefully I get called back to work. But it's getting close to the edge," Garner said.

"Truthfully, it's getting close to the edge."
 

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