With Detroit's New Plan, Plenty Of Pain To Go Around

Originally published on March 2, 2014 11:30 am
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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. The city of Detroit is once again at a crossroads. The state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr recently released his plan to get the city through bankruptcy, and it had plenty of pain to go around. According to the plan, unsecured bondholders would receive only 20 percent of what they're owed. City employees who've retired would absorb up to 34 percent in cuts to their pension checks. That's got Detroiters up in arms. In his State of the City address last week, the new mayor, Mike Duggan, said he hopes that, quote. "every effort will be made to honor the pensions of the men and women who gave their careers to this city." WEEKEND EDITION's Rachel Martin went to Detroit this past week and sat down with several pensioners to talk about what the cuts would mean to them.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: We gathered together a small group of pensioners at the studios of our member station in Detroit, WDET. Each person has a different story and life experience, but they are all frustrated, even fearful, about what might happen if the cuts go through. The voice you'll hear first is that of Becky Kholer(ph). She's a 45-year-old mother of three and she's been a firefighter with the city of Detroit for the past 13 years.

BECKY KHOLER: Regarding the pensions, it really makes me nervous because I still have time to catch up, you know, if they do the cuts. But I wasn't prepared for it yet. So, now I have to kind of rearrange my whole career choice and what I wanted to do and when I wanted to retire in order to make up for that.

DOUGLAS GRANT: My name is Douglas Grant. I worked with Detroit EMS for 25 years. I was starting to feel ill and I had enough time to retire. And I retired. In the same month I retired, I was diagnosed with brain cancer, had surgery. Then we get hit with what's happening in the pension. Already, we've had to sign up for health insurance that'll cover me, my wife and one of my sons in college full-time for $1,300 a month. And I start paying next month. And we don't have a clear word on what the city's going to do to make up for that at all.

MARTIN: Ella.

ELLA JOHNSON: My name's Ella. I'm 67.

MARTIN: What's your last name, Ella?

JOHNSON: Ella Johnson. I'm so angry I could spit nails. I worked 33 years for this city and I was a good employee, as most city employees are. And, you know, what am I supposed to do? I've been living on a set salary for 10 years and now you tell me it's just going to be cut and I should just suck it up? I'm praying a lot. I'm praying a lot - for them to get some sense and some sensibility and some morality. Are they taking pay cuts? Is Orr taking a pay cut? That's what I want to know.

MARTIN: Kevyn Orr, the city manager.

JOHNSON: That's right. That's right. Him.

MARTIN: There seems to be a consensus, right, that Detroit is obviously bankrupt. There's a lot of pain that has to be spread around and that everyone's going to suffer. Do you buy that? Are you willing to concede some cuts?

KHOLER: Well, it's really hard to say why we are in bankruptcy. Are we in bankruptcy because of the financial situation of the nation or are we in bankruptcy because of poor choices that our city officials made? So, it seems like Detroit's a test case. Let's see what we can get done here and then we can go to the other cities, like New York and L.A. and Atlanta and Chicago and see what we can get from them too.

JOHNSON: Amen, amen, amen.

KHOLER: That's what it seems like to me.

JOHNSON: The whole thing speaks to credibility. You know, like, it's like who do you believe now? The union says we're fully funded. The city says, oh no, they ain't. OK. I'll take some cuts but 35 percent plus my vision and my...

KHOLER: We have taken cuts. We are willing to take cuts.

JOHNSON: Right. If you're a city employee, by definition, you have taken cuts over and over and over.

KHOLER: Right. But isn't there a limit? Shouldn't there be a limit?

MARTIN: Doug, what are your primary, most immediate concerns?

GRANT: My most immediate concerns is that I can afford to stay in my house. My house is paid off but if things get worse, if I lose a lot more, I'm paying $1,300 a month for my health insurance at this point in time. I can't let that drop. That takes half my pension.

MARTIN: So, how are you making ends meet right now?

GRANT: Right now, we're down to one car. For years, I actually commuted to work by bicycle and I still ride a bike quite a bit. And it keeps my costs down. I do good on that. But it's going to pinch. It's going to hit. My wife is already babysitting. I'm really not able to work at this point. Under chemotherapy, it's almost impossible.

MARTIN: You're in a bad health situation, and in an exceptional situation. What are your concerns for your family? Because as I understand it, your prognosis is not great.

GRANT: It's not great. It's going to affect my wife, my three boys. They're going to have to take care of me as it is. It's coming. It's coming soon. And I want to see this fixed before I'm gone.

JOHNSON: Why would anybody want to come to the city of Detroit to work? You know? If something happens, they're going to cut you loose and just sell you up the river.

MARTIN: Becky, you said earlier in your first remarks that you are in the process of reassessing your career options. What does that mean? How are you thinking about your career differently now?

KHOLER: Well, for me, I just wanted to - like you said - I just wanted to do my time, you know, do a good job at what I was doing, which is firefighting, move up the ranks and then at maybe 25 years retire. Well, now I can't depend on that. So, I have to go back to school, I have to, you know, reevaluate do I want to stay in this profession or do I want to seek a different profession that's more stable? I don't know. And it's hard because I'm already 45 years old. So, that's, it's...

MARTIN: Are any of you developing contingency plans, looking for other work, other sources of income?

JOHNSON: Well, I have a part-time job. You know, like, at 67 I thought, well, this is a part-time job just to keep myself busy.

MARTIN: What's your part-time job?

JOHNSON: The hell it ain't.

(LAUGHTER)

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