Bankruptcy Judge hears from pensioners, employees

Bankruptcy Judge hears from pensioners, employees

It’s a day of anger, emotion and personal stories in bankruptcy court. Judge Steven Rhodes invited 80 people to testify from among the roughly 600 objections, saying they represented a cross sample of the complaints.

Of the 36 invited to the morning session, 16 showed up, and the judge allowed one who wasn’t on the list to speak. The judge listened from the bench, thanking each person for their testimony but not asking questions or offering comments, with a few exceptions.

Here’s a sample of some of the individuals who appeared and what they had to say:

City retiree Jo Ann Cooper, 70, has lived on Detroit eastside for 40 years. In court she said, “There’s a lot of decay in that area, there’s a lot of blight. … I have never wanted to leave Detroit. … I should not have to at this time in my life worry about this.  .. We earned out compensation we worked for it and it should not be taken away from us.”

Judge Rhodes complimented retired police officer Jamie Fields, saying “I have found the paperwork you submitted particularly articulated and well researched.” Fields argued that the judge would need to apply a “best-interest test,” in weighing whether the Plan of Adjustment would be approved at the August confirmation hearings. “The city has an obligation to show that retirees would receive better treatment under the plan than they would receive outside the plan,” Fields said.

Pensioner Fiorenzo Fabris called for the federal government to contribute more toward the city’s debts. “They were able to assist the American automakers, why can’t they pay to help restore our pensions? … I think if Detroit recovers, and I hope I does, the pensioners should receive something for their forced compensation.”

Jesse J. Florence Sr. drove a bus for the Detroit Department of Transportation for 36 years. “I can recall many days that I went to work even though I might not have felt like it because I knew I had a pension and would be compensated when I retired. … I never thought I would be struggling to get health care. … This is devastating.“

Gerald Galazka objected that police and fire retirees were suffering fewer cuts than the general service pensioners. “This plan placed undue hardship on general retirees,” he said. Galazka also urged better oversight in the future of the city’s finances. “The city and the trustees of the pension funds have fiduciary responsibility to make sure pension funds are properly managed and funded. “There needs to be a mechanism that audits the financial condition of public pension to make sure they are financially sound and do not engage in risky investments that put retiree funds in jeopardy.”

City retiree Deborah Graham said she would like to be recognized as a “working-class citizen” who “provided an economic backbone to the city,” and she raised the issue that the bankruptcy results in age discrimination against city retirees. “I hope that you restore our benefits,” she told the judge.

City employee Andrea Hackett said she objects to the plan because it violates state and federal constitutional guarantees of due process and pensions. She told the judge the bankruptcy amounted to a “corporate hostile takeover of the Detroit” and she had harsh words for Gov. Rick Snyder. “I object to the plan because the governor has breached the oath when he swore to uphold the state constitution. … He appointed the EM against the will of the people.” Like other objectors, Hackett also said the appeal of the bankruptcy should be decided before judge holds the confirmation hearing on the city’s Plan of Adjustment.

Calling the bankruptcy a “looting frenzy,” by lawyers and financial consultants, Kristen Hamel used her testimony to protest the water shutoffs that have taken place when residential accounts went unpaid. She called the bankruptcy and the water shutoffs part of the “inhuman austerity agenda of Gov. Rick Snyder and Emergency Kevyn Orr,” and reminded the judge “The buck stops with you in these bankruptcy proceedings.” She received applause.