Pension funds await resolution in 2015

By JAMES MITCHELL

Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK – Changes in how the city functions have been slow, gradual steps toward the eventual end of state oversight that began in July.

Emergency Manager Brad Coulter said that, after several months of adjustments that included the recent privatization of the city’s building department, the remaining challenges include an anticipated millage request next year to address public safety pensions.

“The pensions are grossly underfunded,” Coulter said.

Specifics remain subject to negotiations, but Coulter anticipates a February or May ballot question seeking a Public Act 345 property tax increase, specifically earmarked for public safety pension funds.

“This would also free up the general fund,” Coulter said. “This would be a key player as to what happens with retiree health benefits as well.”

A stabilized general fund and resolution to a long-standing shortfall in city pensions are the key remaining issues before the city can end the expected 18-month period of state oversight.

Last year at this time city officials asked the state treasury department to review a financial picture that included an estimated $5 million budget deficit. In February a review panel confirmed that the city was in financial emergency, and Coulter assumed authority in July.

Other than addressing public safety pensions – and ongoing explorations of a revised fire department – Coulter said that few changes have taken place at city hall. Most departments had already been reviewed and adjusted while recent administrations dealt with strained budgets.

“The city had really ratcheted back on everything,” Coulter said. Earlier this month to outsource aspects of the city’s building department – now under contract to SAFEbuilt – to improve customer service, but most city offices have continued with little or no change since Coulter’s appointment.

“The looming problem is the pension fund,” Coulter said. Negotiations continue with police and fire to reduce overtime, but the primary hurdle will likely wait until next year.

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)