There’s been so much ink spilled over Detroit’s bankruptcy that I haven’t felt the need to add much to it. But this week the judge overseeing the case ruled that the city of Detroit is eligible for bankruptcy. He also went ahead and ruled that pensions can be cut for the city’s retirees. Meanwhile, the city has received an appraisal of less than $2 billion for the most famous paintings in the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
A couple of thoughts on this:
First, every city in America should be doing a strategic review of its assets, and moving everything it doesn’t want turned into de facto debt collateral into entities that can’t be touched by the courts. In the case of the DIA, the city owns the museum and the collection. Hence the question of whether or not art should be sold to satisfy debts. If it were typical separately chartered non-profit institution, this wouldn’t even be a question.
At this point, I’d suggest cities ought to be taking a hard look at whether they own assets like museums, zoos, etc. that should be spun off into a separate non-profit entity. Keep in mind, the tax dollars that support the institutions can continue flowing to it. But this does protect the assets in the event of a bankruptcy.
In the case of Detroit, it seems inevitable that at least some art work will be sold. Given that worker pensions are going to be cut, it would be pretty tough to say no to selling art. Assuming this is the case, post-sale the museum should be spun off as a separate entity to hopefully reboot its standing the museum world. As the trustees of the group that operates it have been adamantly opposed to any sale, one would hope other museums would not hold any violations of industry standards against them for, particularly if they acquire ownership of the building and artwork away from the city afterward. The city of Detroit doesn’t need to be in the museum business anyway. It has bigger fish to fry.
Secondly, public sector employees will have to start rethinking their approach to retirement benefits. The current mindset has been to grab as much as you can anytime you can because the taxpayer will always be forced to cover the promises no matter what. As the actual results in Central Falls, RI and now this show, that’s no longer a good assumption.
Detroit’s workers don’t have lavish pensions as these things go. But they weren’t shy about abusing the system either. They in effect looted their own pensions by taking out extra, unearned “13th checks”. They also used pensions funds to give a guaranteed 7.9% annual rate of return on supplemental savings accounts workers were allowed to establish. All told these “extra” payments drained about $2 billion out of the pension system.
This was not something the city did through an arm’s length transaction. As the Detroit Free Press reported, Mayor Dennis Archer was alarmed by the practice and wanted to stop it. But “the city doesn’t control its pension funds, which have been largely administered by union officials serving on two independent pension boards.” So he tried to amend the city’s charter to stop the practice. According the Free Press, “Archer backed an effort to block the payments through a proposed new city charter, which actually passed in August 1996. Enraged, several city unions and a retiree group sued and won. Archer tried again to block payments through a ballot initiative, called Proposal T, but it failed.”
The unions could brazenly loot their own pension plan because they felt rock-solid assurance that the taxpayers would ultimately be required to make them whole. This bankruptcy is showing that may not be the case after all. It should serve as a warning to unions everywhere not to get too aggressive with their shenanigans.
They’ll of course appeal the judge’s ruling and may win. But the Michigan constitution says pensions are a contract right. The very definition of bankruptcy is that you can’t pay what you’re contractually obligated to. Bankruptcy is all about breaking contracts. The bondholders have contracts that are not supposed to be impaired too, after all. I’m a fan of local government autonomy as you know, but as Steve Eide rightly points out, any freedom worth its name is freedom to fail. If cities and their various constituencies don’t suffer the consequences of their mistakes, they should be heavily micromanaged from on high.
When individuals fail, we have a safety net (unemployment insurance, for example). Plus we have personal bankruptcy to give people a fresh start. We don’t even worry about whether the person is at fault for their own position or not. We provide that backstop regardless. But that backstop doesn’t allow people to go on living like they did before as if nothing happened. Similarly, cities in trouble shouldn’t be abandoned, but they need to realize that there are genuine consequences for failure. A realization that failure has consequences for pension holders as well as the taxpayer should hopefully promote healthier decisions about how retirement benefits should be offered, funded, and administered.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.