Lansing fiddles as cities burn bridges

The Michigan Association of Counties is very polite. “This fell far short of the mark,” Stephan W. Currie, its executive director, said Thursday after the Michigan Legislature did nothing about the unfunded pension and retiree benefits crisis strangling local and county governments across the state.

Instead of giving cities, townships and counties real tools to deal with the real and growing problems, lawmakers are going to create a bureaucracy to collect more data. As we’ve reported repeatedly, and as new media across the state and country have reported, the data already exists. Local governments in the Blue Water Area, across the state and around the country face millions of dollars in payments to their retirees that they won’t be able to make without devastating cuts to local services — the only strategy now available to them.

Port Huron taxpayers this year approved new funding for police and fire services and for parks and recreation so that the city would be able to spend more of its general fund to meet its annual obligation to its retirees. That was supposed to give the city breathing room while the Legislature worked up the courage to help fix the issue.

It hasn’t yet.

Some have suggested that legislators were intimidated by the police officers and firefighters who traveled to Lansing this week to demonstrate at the capital. Lawmakers, they said, were worried about the power of police and fire unions to organize opposition to their re-election. Lawmakers who can’t address one of the most important problems facing local communities should not be re-elected.

A simple solution has been proposed: Allowing local governments to refinance their debts to retirees. It’s too complicated for lawmakers.

Those lawmakers need to think beyond their term limits. Angry firefighters and law enforcement officers will be back in Lansing, and their demonstrations will be noisier, when emergency managers start taking over cities and counties and announcing they can’t afford first responders. Demonstrations can turn the heads of legislators, but aren’t likely to sway an emergency manager fending off bankruptcy.

We all value and appreciate our police and fire departments. But we want to be able to rely on them in the future. Local governments backed into a corner by higher and higher pension and retiree health care costs won’t have any choices. The first obligation will be pension payments guaranteed by the state constitution. The second choice will be asking voters to increase taxes. If they say no, layoffs are inevitable.

Until the Legislature figures out the undeniable arithmetic for itself, employee and retiree groups need to be working with their elected officials and administrators to plot a soft landing that harms as few workers, residents and taxpayers as possible.

— Times Herald (Port Huron)

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