DETROIT (AP) – The city of Detroit reached a deal with a group of retired police officers and firefighters that would protect pensions but trim annual cost-of-living payments. It is the first major agreement with retirees in the bankruptcy case, mediators announced Tuesday.
The city retreated from an earlier proposed 6 percent cut in pensions and the elimination of the 2.25 percent cost-of-living payment. Leaders of the Retired Detroit Police and Fire Fighters Association, which has more than 6,000 members, endorsed the deal along with creation of a health plan.
Bill Nowling, a spokesman for emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who took the city into bankruptcy last summer, said Detroit believes it can afford the compromise partly because the pension fund’s financial performance has improved along with Wall Street markets.
Orr thanked the association and urged more creditors to make deals.
“The time to resolve our differences is now,” he said in a statement.
The agreement still is subject to a vote by retirees, starting in May, as well as current employees who are eligible for a future pension. It also must go through Judge Steven Rhodes as part of Detroit’s larger plan to exit bankruptcy by fall.
“Sooner or later reality sinks in,” association president Don Taylor told The Detroit News. “The city’s in bankruptcy so you have to do the best you can for the majority of your members.”
Association attorney Ryan Plecha said preservation of pension benefits was the “crown jewel.”
The boards of trustees for the retirement system and the union issued a joint statement saying the tentative settlement was the result of good-faith negotiations.
The deal also is tied to the city getting $816 million from foundations, philanthropists and the state of Michigan. Lawmakers still haven’t approved the state’s $350 million share, which has been endorsed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
The pot of money would prevent the sale of city-owned art and be earmarked solely for more than 20,000 Detroit retirees who draw benefits from two underfunded pension funds.
The average annual pension for police and fire retirees is $32,000. They would keep about half of their annual cost-of-living payments under the deal announced Tuesday. The reduction could be restored in the future if the fund’s finances improve.
“This has been one of the more vocal class of creditors,” bankruptcy expert Doug Bernstein said. “Maybe the city is getting some momentum where hopefully the remainder of the case won’t be so contentious. That’s optimistic. There’s going to be good days and bad days, but this is certainly significant.
“Judge Rhodes will not approve a plan that over-promises,” Bernstein said. “They are definitely going to have to back up their numbers.”
The city still is negotiating with other retired workers, although their pension fund is in worse shape. Orr has proposed a 26 percent cut to current benefits; even more if the $816 million rescue falls apart.
Detroit filed for bankruptcy last July, citing $18 billion in unmanageable long-term liabilities. It’s the largest public filing in U.S. history.
The city last week settled with holders of $388 million in bonds, agreeing to pay 74 cents for each dollar owed. Separately, the judge signed off on an $85 million agreement that releases Detroit from a disastrous debt deal made years ago that carried high rates of interest.
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