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A Year Into Detroit’s Bankruptcy, Many Residents Still Feel Abandoned

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

DETROIT — In the year since this city filed for bankruptcy, becoming the largest municipality ever to do so, leaders have adopted a more optimistic tone about the future, pledging to fix streetlights and attract new residents and jobs.

But Eric Byrd isn’t buying it.

“No change round here yet,” said the 30-year-old, looking around his neighborhood on the west side of the city. Nearly every house on the block is abandoned, hollowed out by fire or vandals. Yards have been reclaimed by tall grass and wildflowers, and the roads are potholed and empty.

By all accounts, Detroit’s bankruptcy has been handled quickly and evenhandedly under the guidance of Judge Steven Rhodes. Already, the city has come up with a plan of adjustment and given retirees and employees the chance to vote on it; their ballots were due July 11.

It also has enlisted $816 million from private funds and the state to help limit cuts to city pensions and protect the Detroit Institute of Arts from a fire sale. The city even recently launched an initiative to recruit natives back to the city, inviting them to an event to experience the new Detroit.

Not everyone is impressed, though, especially current and past city employees, who have seen big changes to their health insurance and probably will see reductions in their pensions. Their anger was evident Tuesday, when Rhodes held a hearing to give some the opportunity to voice their objections to the bankruptcy.

“It’s more than a tough pill of swallow. It’s tantamount to eating an elephant in one bite. And I can’t do that,” said Beverly Holman, a city retiree, in her testimony.

Their complaints are fueled by fear and distrust: that the process through which retirees had to accept or reject the bankruptcy plan was rigged; that the city is shutting off water to residents unfairly; that retirees will be forced on the dole if the bankruptcy plan goes forward; that City Council members are getting a 5 percent raise while many retirees are struggling to pay the bills.

Perhaps the biggest objection was to this: The city says the pension funds overpaid into some retirees’ accounts and wants that money back. One man testified Tuesday that the city wanted $89,000 from him. Like all retirees in this situation, he has the option of paying it back in a lump sum or having his pension reduced.

In a room open to the public to watch the proceedings, a crowd of 50 or so retirees had gathered, many of them saying they feared they would lose their homes if the bankruptcy plan went forward. They applauded and whooped during the testimony of Holman and others. Applauding is about all they can do at this point because the votes are already in and the city has hinted that the retirees have approved the plan.

“My life is at stake because I can’t afford the insurance,” said Gisele Caver, another retiree, through tears after telling Rhodes that the cuts to her health plan have made it impossible to pay for the medicine she needs.

The plan needs approval from more than half of the members of each voting class. The results will be announced July 21; next month, Rhodes will hold a hearing about the plan and decide whether to accept it.

Still, some Detroiters are pledging to continue to fight the bankruptcy, no matter what happens in court. They say they’ll continue to protest with the group Moratorium Now!, although only a handful of people participated in an organized protest outside court Tuesday, a startling contrast to the days when hundreds of Detroiters marched to object to the bankruptcy.

“Worst comes to worst, I guess we’ll just be rioting in Detroit,” said William Davis, 57, a city retiree who was in court watching the hearing.

AFP Photo / Bill Pugliano

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Stanford’s New School For Aspiring Retirees To Mold Satisfying Second Careers

By Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif.—Stanford University is looking for a new kind of student: proven leaders, with 20 to 30 years of work experience, seeking to reinvent their futures.

A small experiment launched this week offers older students the opportunity not to retire but retrain — and commit to new and meaningful projects.

The yearlong Distinguished Careers Institute is not for everyone. It will pluck 20 high achievers and place them in one of the most elite educational environments in the world to swap experiences and insights with their generations younger classmates.

But the model, if successful, could be adapted by community colleges and other universities so the nation’s growing ranks of Baby Boomers could apply their knowledge, skills and professional relationships in new realms.

“Retirement in the traditional sense is not really healthy,” said Institute director Dr. Phil Pizzo, a 69-year-old pediatrician, researcher, and former dean of the Stanford School of Medicine who awakens by 4:30 a.m. each day to run six to seven miles.

“What you need to stay healthy is to be physically well, intellectually motivated and stimulated to take on new challenges and form social communities,” he said. “And to continue to do that over time.”

Enrollment is open now, for a school year that starts in January. The school is looking for candidates with 20- to 30-year histories of significant career achievement who are ready to explore new professional trajectories and who can pay the $60,000 tuition.

They’ll be mentored by some of the university’s brightest lights, such as Pizzo, School of Engineering Dean James D. Plummer and School of Business professor Margaret Neale, who will help develop personalized “scholarly pathways” toward achieving their goals. Participants can audit any of the university’s hundreds of academic offerings, take part in think tanks and seminars, and meet regularly with faculty and students.

Pizzo has met with nearly 100 experts, on campus and off, to plan ways to harness older workers’ skills and experience to catapult them into new endeavors. The university will work with global job placement centers to connect fellows with volunteer or paid employment.

The institute is on the frontier of a new range in higher education, “essentially school for the second half of life,” said Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org, a nonprofit organization focused on social careers for Baby Boomers. “The initiative holds the potential to pioneer a new model,” said Freedman, author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.

In traditional retirement, elders are supposed to get out of the way and out of work. But a growing number of “second actors,” people like Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Bill Gates, show what experienced second-career executives can accomplish.

Universities can expand their role in not just stimulating the first phase of a career but helping create mid- to later-career life transitions, as well, said Pizzo.

Few programs now exist to help. The leader is Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative that began in 2008. Its fellows are dedicated to finding solutions for societal problems. Unlike Stanford’s program, Harvard fellows come with a specific project mapped out.

Pizzo said that in a decade of thinking about the issues, two demographic facts caught his attention: Baby Boomers will represent one-quarter of the U.S. population by 2029. And they’re living longer and healthier lives.

He saw that some people resist the traditional retirement ideal of leisure, so continue working even though their skills have lost their edge. Others embrace retirement but quickly grow bored. Still others don’t have the financial ability to fully retire, yet don’t know what other work they can do. These people represent a huge untapped societal resource, he believes.

Los Angeles-based investment banker Skip Victor used the Harvard program to shift from a stellar career in corporate restructuring to build Academic Exchange, which organizes educational missions to Israel for scholars in political science, international relations, history, law and journalism. He also studied music composition, neuroscience, China and health-care law and policy.

“When you’re young, you’re trying to figure out what you want to do. Then you become focused on a specific set of questions and problems. It is just not possible to explore,” Victor said. “There is great freedom in being a beginner again,” he said. Now he mentors Harvard students who seek his advice in business and public service.

The Stanford program will “create change, 20 people at a time,” said Pizzo.

“If our fellows become models that deliver new organizations, they’ll be champions of the future.”

AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan

Michigan Governor Finds New Way To Make Workers Nervous

Yesterday, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to a request from Gov. Rick Snyder to examine the legality of taxing public pensions:

“Snyder is asking the seven justices to rule whether applying the personal income tax to the pension income of public retirees violates the state constitutional prohibition against impairing or diminishing a public pension benefit.” [mLive]