Even in cash crisis, Wayne County commissioners defend "part-time" pensions

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Wayne County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak wasn’t in a talking mood at a public meeting earlier this month.  Approached about his retirement plan by Channel 7’s Ross Jones, Woronchak made a  beeline for the elevator.

“Can we talk about your pension, sir?”  Jones asked.

“Get off the elevator,” Woronchak snapped.

He wasn’t eager to explain why he and 10 other commissioners took a deal back in 2010 to use funds from their county 401k plans to buy into a county pension plan instead. For Woronchak, the deal means an estimated $32,688 each year for life. 

The pension plan was opened up to Woronchak and others after Wayne County CEO Bob Ficano offered the deal to sheriffs deputies during contract negotiations. After he opened the pension system to them, it was offered to his own appointees and commissioners too.  

Pensions have become more scarce in government and private business for years.  Unlike a 401k, which relies heavily on the stock market, a pension is guaranteed for life.  It promises a portion of your salary for life.

But unlike almost every other employee in the plan, County Commissioners aren’t required to work full-time hours, and some work second jobs.  In fact, several we talked to—like longtime commissioner Ed Boike— don’t even consider the job full-time.

“I do consider it a part time job,” Boike told Jones.

Beyond the hours commissioners have to put in, the deal is controversial because the county’s pension system is headed for disaster. Today, it’s only 45% funded and,  if nothing improves, either taxpayers will have to make up the difference or retirees’ futures will be in doubt.

Former Wayne County Auditor General Brendan Dunleavy says commissioner’s should have fought Ficano when he opened up the pension plan four years ago, instead of joining in.

“This will bring down Wayne County,” he said.  “If (commissioners) did their job, they would have stopped it.  But they were too busy to say, ‘Can I get the same deal?’ ”

Starting in 2010, then-Commissioner Boike and 10 of his colleagues jumped into the deal, like Commissioner Jewel Ware. She said by phone that she works “part-time as a commissioner and part-time for political campaigns.”

When Ware retires, she’s set to receive about $42,900 a year for life.  

Commissioner Joe Palamara shares his time between the commission and his second job in Lansing. In retirement, his pension will pay out about $33,660 each year. 

“Is it proper for a part-time commissioner to have a full-time pension?” Jones asked Palamara.

“There’s always going be those who make the assertion that it is not,” he said.

His county pension won’t be his only one. Palamara already collects a pension from his days as a state legislator that pays him $55,788 a year.

He said he regrets switching into the plan, but thinks taxpayers should know he’s saved them money in other ways: like taking a 10% pay cut, not using the county for health insurance and returning money each year from his annual office budget.

Retired Commissioner Bernard Parker opted to take an accelerated pension that will pay out about $170,000 by December.  After that, it drops to under $27,000 each year.

Even Commissioner Laura Cox, a vocal critic of Wayne County waste, couldn’t resist the deal, buying into a  plan that will give her more than $32,000 annually in retirement. Cox and most others we talked to say they regret the decision, because the pension plan is now in crisis.

“Now, we know what we know,” Cox said. “I would make a different decision.”

Retired Wayne County employee Janice Burnett never even had the chance. She put in 18 years helping get healthcare for county residents with HIV. All she has today is a 401k that barely pays the bills.

“I used to say I could make a dollar holler.  Not anymore,” Burnett said. “I done stretched that dollar, and now it’s telling me, ‘Janice, there’s no holler left in me.’ ”

“A lot of people say that generous plans like this are what got us into financial ruin. Do you have any regrets over switching into this plan?” Jones asked Woronchak.

“I don’t see that that plan has put anything into financial ruin,” he responded.

“The plan is only 45% funded, that’s not financial ruin?” Jones asked.

“I’m not sure it’s only 45% funded. I mean, I think it’s on the upswing,” Woronchak said.

Last week, a retirement official confirms the plan has been stuck at 45% funding for at least a year. 

Woronchak disagrees with some of his colleagues who say their job is only part-time. He says he routinely puts in at least 40 hours a week, if not much more.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.