Let’s talk about trees.
The Detroit Enterprise Academy is a good, clean place where the children’s academic achievement ranks in the upper half of Detroit schools. Not bad considering it is in the poorest, most violent quarter of the country's poorest most violent city. A crumbling apartment complex hulks nearby. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the seven-year-old killed in a police raid last year, lived a few blocks away.
I went there to speak to the students this week. As soon as I got out of my car, the pulling on my sleeve began. “Please help us get that tree down. It’s gonna kill somebody.”
Across from the school entrance, where parents drop their children, is a dead oak hollowed out by carpenter ants. There is a crack all the way through the trunk. It creaks in the wind. A sign is posted to it: Warning Dangerous Tree.
When that tree falls, there’s a good chance it’s going to kill someone’s baby.
People at the school told me they have called the city numerous times over the past year trying to get the tree down. And no action.
Why? Why do kids here have to live under a dangerous tree? Get tardy ambulance and police service? Play near gutted buildings?
No one's ever bothered to count how many dead trees there are in the city. It could be 100,000 or more, one ombudsman estimates. And there is money in the budget to tear them down -- nearly $3 million last year. But the money never seems to find its way to the streets. Where does it go?
Mayor Dave Bing offered an answer this week when he unveiled his strong-medicine budget to the city council .
He said the city wants to suspend a $65 million payment to the employee pension funds. That money is not payment for people’s work but rather annuity guarantees promising a return as high as seven percent.
What that means is -- regardless of what the economy is doing, if the funds don’t earn seven percent, the city will make up the difference.
It is a sweetheart deal that is decades old in Detroit.
No one I’ve spoken with has ever heard of such an arrangement anywhere else in the country.
“That’s voodoo finance,” said Olivia S. Mitchell, chair of the Department of Insurance and Risk Management at the Wharton School of Business.
Mitchell points out that considering the state of the international economy, you’d be hard pressed to find any kind of guaranteed return, much less seven percent.
“Ultimately it’s the taxpayer who makes up the difference and nobody out there is earning that kind of money,” Mitchell said.
No one knows that better than a Detroiter.
And then consider who served on the pension boards 2008-09 when the systems lost a reported $2 billion: Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, federal inmate Monica Conyers and state inmate Kwame Kilpatrick to name a few.
Hardly a boardroom of financial geniuses.
It is also worth mentioning that pension fund lawyer Robert Zajac is having his own lawyer paid for by the pension funds while he is investigated by federal authorities for pay-to-play schemes involving people’s retirement money.
Who could blame any of them for dipping their paws in the honey pot, agreeing to invest other people's money in airplane schemes and poison injection wells? The citizens are on the hook for the bill.
And that’s the way it works in Detroit: union bosses, piggish politicians, shiny-suited businessmen raking from the tree fund. And damned be the children.
Should this change? I want to know what you think.
In the meantime, I found a guy who will take down the tree near the school -- for free. I am trying to navigate through bureaucracy and union rules to get it done. Stay tuned.
Charlie LeDuff was sucessfull in getting the tree taken down. Watch the video report for an update to this story.