Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 27, 2013

Editorial: Pension proposal deserves no-strings vote

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Politics has been called “the art of compromise” and “the art of the possible.”

For the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, however, art usually has nothing to do with it. That has never been more apparent than in a recent discussion about a proposal to borrow $46 million over 20 years to cover an unfunded pension liability and free up general fund money to cover a pending budget deficit.

Some commissioners who helped defeat the measure made it plain their votes could be had — for a price.

Obviously, this is the kind of thing that happens all the time behind closed doors. But it’s no way to conduct the public’s business. What must count is not that a deal has been struck — in public or not — but that commissioners are doing what they believe is best for their constituents and the county.

The pension proposal is critical stuff. The county ended most of its defined-benefit pension plans and now, annual payments are projected to rise from nearly $4 million to more than $6 million by 2024.

Bond payments would be about $3.5 million a year for 20 years, but only $2.4 million in 2014. The reduced cost would eliminate a projected $930,000 budget deficit in 2014 and create a surplus of about $180,000.

While that plan provides a solution for the pending budget shortfall and resolves the pension issue, the county would still be borrowing a huge amount of money and taxpayers would be on the hook until 2033 or so.

After the proposal was defeated 4-3, a few commissioners said their votes could be changed.

“I would take a different look at my vote today if I could get some kind of commitment to doing a couple of other things,” Commissioner Charlie Renny said during the meeting. “I would vote for this (bond issue) today.”

Renny’s wish list included more emphasis on economic development programs, an outside attorney to negotiate future union contracts and an operational analysis of county operations.

Commissioner Christine Maxbauer said “you’d have my vote, too” if the board would adopt a process known as “budgeting for outcomes” — which the board has previously rejected.

“We have to have some things that make us feel better about this,” said Commissioner Dan Lathrop.

Frankly, that stinks. If those three think the bonding plan is good for the county, they should vote for it. If they think the county should increase its investment in economic development or change the way it budgets or make them “feel better,” they should propose those changes and face an up-or-down vote.

It has been said the public’s business is too important to be left to politicians — or to horse trading.