By Tupac Hunter
Generally, severance pay is intended to ease the economic impact on terminated or retiring employees. When it is used appropriately, it serves a rightful and even noble purpose. Also, bonuses are intended to reward employees for exceptional work and for going above and beyond the call of duty.
But the recent reports of wasteful spending of severance payouts and bonuses on Wayne County government officials have uncovered a culture of entitlement and flat-out greed — all on the dime of taxpaying citizens.
For months, we have been saturated with story after story about the severance payout scandal in Wayne County. Wayne County Circuit Judge Michael Sapala recently ruled that the Wayne County Executive’s Office must honor lucrative payments of up to 24 weeks’ pay and enhanced pensions for 15 county political appointees. These severance payouts will put taxpayers on the hook for a grand total of almost $1 million.
Regardless of this ruling, it doesn’t take a law degree to see that these payments never should have been agreed to in the first place. Apparently, these generous benefits were offered to more than one hundred political appointees to encourage them to retire early. In addition, it has been reported that many appointees received a boost in their pensions. Around 50 of them reportedly took the deal, some receiving up to $50,000 just to leave their jobs.
While many of Wayne County’s severance payout and bonus practices have been called into question as of late, perhaps the worst offender has been largely overlooked. For almost three decades, the elected Wayne County treasurer has exploited an obscure 1970’s state law to pay himself a bonus each year for collecting delinquent property taxes — which is the main responsibility that the taxpayers are already paying him for.
The Wayne County treasurer is the only elected county treasurer in Michigan who has been collecting this bonus. The Wayne County treasurer’s bonus has reportedly risen from almost $16,000 in 2001 to $57,000 in 2008. Perhaps most egregiously, the Wayne County treasurer sought to boost his salary by an additional $73,000 just a couple of years ago, while Wayne County citizens were losing their homes to foreclosure left and right.
In a twist of irony, it was the Wayne County executive who admonished the county treasurer for seeking the exorbitant bonus payout due to the fact that county workers were being asked to take a 10 percent pay cut to offset the county’s budget deficit. While the messenger may have lost credibility, the message has not.
Just because some things might be deemed legal, it does not necessarily make them right. Whether it’s the court ruling that has upheld the payouts to county officials or the outdated law that has allowed the Wayne County treasurer to bilk taxpayers for thousands of dollars for the last quarter century, our laws are not meant to be abused for personal or political gain.
It is the job of all government officials to prudently manage taxpayer dollars and uphold the public trust. These lucrative severance payouts for already highly-paid officials and the outlandish bonuses that the county treasurer has been collecting are an inappropriate and fiscally irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars.
Wayne County government can ill-afford such reckless and self-serving spending, especially in light of the financial problems we are currently facing. These lavish perks are being paid for by the taxpayers, and they deserve better from their elected officials. It is now time to hold county leadership accountable and restore order, ethics, transparency and integrity in our government once and for all.
(State Sen. Tupac Hunter is the Democratic Floor Leader and represents the 5th District, which is comprised of Dearborn Heights, Inkster and northwest Detroit. He is the Minority Vice Chair of the Senate Committees on Banking and Financial Institutions, and the Senate Committee on Economic Development, and is a member of the Senate Committee on Government Operations.)