They run from January to April 2010 and I wrote them for EMPLOYEES POSITIVE VOICES but they were spot on with some predictions and shows it's not the unions fault but our leaders elected and appointed. This one is a joint effort by and Peter Carlberg and me telling the REAL STORY of City Employees, Retirees and their families as told to us in their own words.
Are City Workers Overpaid?
By Rick Tormala and Peter Carlberg Thursday, April 15, 2010 EPV
At last month’s second public G.R.A.S.S. meeting (Grand Rapids Advocates for Sensible Spending), GRASS leaders Rina Sala Baker and Mary Milanowski made a concerted argument that City workers’ pay scales and, especially, their medical and pension benefits, were the most obvious places to make cuts, as opposed to hiking City income taxes. Understandably irate off-duty fire fighters, police officers and City workers packed the meeting and tried to make the case that they had been agreeing to give-backs and wage-cuts for years, and wondered when the taxpayers and citizens they have been serving and protecting were going to do their part.
Watching the news coverage of the meeting on TV, eighty-four year-old Leatrice Mollien wasn’t buying the GRASS argument. This is tax prep season and she had her papers handy. “Want to see how generous a City fire fighter’s pension is?” she asked, holding out her earnings statement. “After they subtract what I have to pay for supplemental health insurance, they send me thirteen bucks a month.” Not even quite that, her stub read “$12.59.”
George Mollien joined the Grand Rapids Fire Department in 1945, right after returning from service in WWII. When he met and married Leatrice they had both been divorced and both had school-age children at home, one of his five children and two of her four. “I couldn’t afford to quit my job,” said Leatrice, “but at least it was part-time and I could be home to take care of the kids on some kind of a regular schedule. George and other firemen work crazy hours – 24 hours on, 24 hours off, sometimes 2 or 3 days off in a row, but a lot more than 40 hours a week. Can you imagine trying to manage children by yourself on that schedule?”
Another common problem confronts both police and fire fighters. The City doesn’t pay Social Security taxes for police and fire department employees so George, like a lot of firemen, had a second job so he could qualify for at least some level of Social Security. He worked part-time, on call, as a guard on Brinks armoured trucks, sometimes on very long hauls. “I remember him at least once making a run to the U.P. and back.”
George retired after 35 years with the fire department. He passed away in 1988, and Leatrice decided it was finally time to retire. “After 44 years at the same job, I was ready. I’m very lucky that I don’t have to survive on just George’s pension and social security benefits. He only qualified for about $400 a month from Social Security. I have co-pays on all my prescriptions and doctors’ appointments, and dental isn’t covered. I had almost two thousand dollars in out-of-pocket medical expenses last year that weren’t covered by Medicare or my supplemental insurance. I don’t have mortgage or rent costs, but I still have to pay property taxes and utilities. On just my widow’s share of George’s retirement benefits there wouldn’t be any money left for food.”
City workers’ pension benefits, unlike Social Security benefits, don’t have automatic cost of living allowances to adjust for inflation As George’s widow, Leatrice gets half of the pension benefit. When George first retired his pension check was about double the amount Leatrice gets and supplemental health insurance costs were much lower. But were George still alive the health insurance costs would be double and TWO people would be trying to survive with just the tiny remainder as a pension benefit.
Retired Fire Fighter Mike DeBack is proud of his service to the City and doesn’t begrudge the missed holidays and family events. Or even the injuries that eventually led to his retiring on a disability pension. Public service runs in the genes of his family: “My Grandfather was a fire fighter and so was Dad though he eventually joined the Grand Rapids Police Department. I was encouraged by my Grandfather to join the department he retired from in the 1960s. His pension when he retired was $278.85 a month and it never changed for the rest of his life. He had no cost of living increase ever and Grand Rapids police officers and fire fighters don’t get social security. People don’t realize that.”
“When I joined the Department back in 1970,” he recalled recently, “we had 312 men with staffing levels of over 60 to 70 fire fighters working every day. On most calls there were 5 men on every truck and engine. In those days we never went out with less than four. They wouldn’t allow it.” DeBack grimaces when he discusses the current understaffed Department: “I don’t feel very safe in my own neighborhood even though I live very close to Station Number 14 on Plainfield. Some days staffing levels are so low response times can be slower and portions of stations shut down or even go out of service. We need better numbers of officers for the police department too. We need to get back to funding the basic needs of our city - police, fire, roads, and other essential services. That is what people want and will pay for because it’s what we need.”
DeBack is Vice President of the Grand Rapids Fire Fighters Retirees Association, which meets twice a year and advocates for retired fire fighters and spouses. DeBack is less concerned about his own situation but deeply concerned about the plight of other retirees: “Some of these people are barely getting by. Some spend most of what they receive from their pension every month paying the city for their health care supplemental. I don’t know how they make it. Some pay everything they have for health care. People don’t know. The city doesn’t pay for health insurance for retirees. They never have. These people are on fixed incomes, usually don’t get Social Security and have to pay for their own Medicare supplemental insurance. Fire fighters have their pride and don’t like to ask for help. Some are surviving by going to food pantries and the like. It isn’t right. Again, I don’t think the public knows.”
Over the years, DeBack worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant. Then, while fighting a fire in 1988, he fell off a roof fracturing his hip in 150 places and incurring many other critical injuries. He spent three months in the hospital and three months recovering at home, with a lot of support from his co-workers. “Fire Fighters take care of our own,” he says. With the support of his department, he returned to work for another seven years, becoming a trainer and a HAZ-MAT specialist. The scars and after effects are still with him today, including the disability that led to his retirement.
DeBack, now a 60 year-old widower, isn’t surprised by G.R.A.S.S.’s call for more wage and benefit cuts. “The workers always take the brunt. We’re the scapegoats. There’s been mismanagement and waste over the years by the City Commissions and City Managers, but because people don’t know everything we get the blame. City workers, government workers don’t get the respect they deserve for what they do. We’ve always been treated like second-class citizens and taken for granted…except when we’re needed. You know we always served the public well and will continue to serve them well, no matter what."
Rewinding again to the March G.R.A.S.S. meeting, after some early protestations and brief outbursts, the dozens of City workers in the audience are listening sullenly as G.R.A.S.S. authorities expound on how City-employee benefit packages are out-of-step with employee benefit packages “in the private sector”. The City workers are just as shy as any other civilian would be to stand up in front of a crowd and make a case for how much they are worth. It’s very awkward for most regular folks to do in the best of times. But now is the worst of times in recent memory.
Beyond Social Security exceptions, there are other significant differences from the private sector. Most private sector workers, even armed security guards, are ordered to avoid all risks – not enter burning buildings, pursue suspects down blind alleys or attempt to pull drunk drivers off the road. And most high-risk jobs outside of government command well above average hazardous-duty pay scales.
“We don’t know if our husband or wife is coming home at night. You can just sit over there and count your blessings,” an obviously offended Dolly Jessee tells the G.R.A.S.S. organizers. Her husband, Dennis, was a Green Beret for twenty years, served in action in Grenada, and now patrols the streets of Grand Rapids. “I worried when Dennis was in the Special Forces and I just prayed for his safety.” She reveals later. “I still do but Dennis loves his job and I support him. He wanted to serve his country and I’m proud of him and supported him. He gave twenty years for his country and still wanted to give more so he went into police work.”
After a stint with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, the native South East Michigan couple and their two children moved to West Michigan when Dennis became a Grand Rapids Police Officer. “What bothers me,” says Dolly, “is you say, ‘Ok I’m going to accept this job,.’ -then all of a sudden everything is cut. They then have to do their job, which is to protect people, but they also have to protect their family and we don’t come first. I mean, if Dennis has a late call, well… we are not going to be going out to dinner because the late call is more important. Many days our plans are ruined. These people go home and have their dinner at 5 o’clock. We don’t have our dinner at 5 o’clock. We have our dinner when Dennis comes home. You know family vacations, you don’t have any family vacations if your husband can’t get the time off. It’s like sorry guys we’re not going on vacation Dad can’t get the time off. Holidays and family events they are away many times. People don’t understand we do give. And that’s fine, after all these years I’m fine with that, but you know that women from GRASS, she said we are not willing to give up anything. Well we already give a lot. We give till it hurts. She should walk in our shoes some day.”
“Every thing the guys got they are paying for. They gave up wages for benefits. We pay 10% of the medical. I just think that the people don’t know. They think we pay no medical. That we have no co-pays. That we are given everything and that police officers and fire fighters aren’t willing to give anything back. But that isn’t true. I just had an operation. We paid $500 -maybe that’s not a lot to others but we paid it. We pay a co-pay for prescriptions, doctors visits, everything. If we’re sick we wait and if we have to go to the Doctor then we go, but we are careful with how we use it.”
“This is such a high stress job. The guys come home and they need time to decompress. Now to think some of the people in Grand Rapids are gunning for them. When those people need help who are they going to call?”
“I’m sorry the City is struggling, but for 15 years they didn’t pay anything into the police or fire pensions -but the workers did.” adds Dolly, referring to one of the City’s main budget problems – mounting deficits in their pension funds. City workers made their contributions to the pension funds year after year while the City and the taxpayers paid no contributions at all – relying entirely on the stock market boom continuing indefinitely to make up their share of the burden. City leaders were advised that they should still pay their contributions in booming economic times so they would have some kind of built-up cushion during economic downturns.
They didn’t and now that day has arrived.
Ultimately, who should pay for all this? The taxpayers whose elected leaders helped get us into this mess? Or should the already-sacrificing City workers, once again, take it on the chin?
Editorial Note (Retiree Former GRFD Lieutenant Michael M. DeBack one of our heroes interviewed for this article passed away Saturday, November 27, 2010 at the age of 62. Our prayers go out his family and we will never forget his service. Rest in peace Sir.)