Detroit Bankruptcy Threatens LODD Benefits

The city plans to cut the pension and health care benefits promised to the survivors of fallen officers.

Three years after her husband was killed in the line of duty, Melissa Alexander-Huff and her son are still coping with the loss.

Detroit Police Officer Brain Huff was shot and killed in May 2010 as he entered a vacant east-side duplex to investigate a report of a break-in.

And now, like other survivors of Detroit police and firefighters killed in the line of duty, Alexander-Huff, 47, is facing the likelihood of another loss -- this one, financial.

The City of Detroit, as part of its bankruptcy, plans to cut the pension and health care benefits Alexander-Huff was promised after her husband's death.

"It's not only cold, it's somebody demonic or evil that would only want to step in and include the widows in everything they want to cut and take away," she told the Free Press on Dec. 4. "Haven't we lost enough? Shall we bury ourselves and jump into the graves with our husband? Because that is what the City of Detroit is basically doing to us. They're killing us and our children."

Alexander-Huff and her 13-year-old son, Blair, are among 150 family members of Detroit police and firefighters killed in the line of duty who receive survivors pension benefits, according to the Detroit Police Officers Association.

Alexander-Huff, who was married to Huff for 11 years, said she and her son receive about $2,200 a month from the Police and Fire Retirement System, one of two pension funds for Detroit employees, after a deduction for health coverage. She said she receives about $730 a week in workers' compensation. The federal government also provided a death benefit of about $300,000, she said.

Detroit's bankruptcy threatens her city pension fund benefits. Because they are paid from the same fund as retired cops and firefighters, the surviving family members are considered in the ongoing bankruptcy case as creditors of the city, just like thousands of retired city workers.

Since the city was ruled eligible for bankruptcy, emergency manager Kevyn Orr has said he plans to cut pension benefits as part of his financial plan to stabilize Detroit. According to Orr, the city has about $18 billion in debt and liabilities, including about $3.5 billion in projected pension shortfalls and nearly $6 billion in unfunded retiree health care costs.

Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has ruled that pensions can be cut in bankruptcy. Rhodes, however, has warned Orr that his ruling doesn't mean he will approve a plan that includes pension cuts, and that any cuts must be "fair and equitable."

Orr insisted during a meeting with Free Press that he is aware of the "human dimension" of the city's bankruptcy and its impact on pensioners. But he also said he believes there is no way to fix the city's balance sheet without cutting pensions. He said he will be thoughtful and humane while doing so.

Alexander-Huff and others are hoping the widows and children left behind can be spared. She implored Orr to consider their plight.

"What if his wife was in this situation and he was a Detroit police officer?" she said. "Would he want her to lose her benefits? What would she be losing? Would he want his wife to be where we are? Yeah, he's an attorney. But what if he would've chosen a different path in life?"

Not much, but just enough

Diane Philpot, whose husband, Jerry Philpot, was a police officer killed in the line of duty nearly two decades ago, cannot fathom why benefits she and her daughter receive as survivors are on the chopping block.

"It's kind of like they said, 'Sorry he died, but I'm going to spit on his grave and wipe my boots. That's what I'm going to do because it's not part of our numbers,' " Philpot said.

The survivors also are subject to the same health care cuts as retirees, meaning widows younger than 65 would receive a $125 monthly stipend for health care under Orr's proposed health care changes.

Philpot, 52, of Brownstown Township got a letter from the city about the cuts and was told that her health care benefits would be replaced with the stipend to buy insurance on the open market.

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