He protected Detroit pensions in the '60s and now worries about DIA

Jan 30, 2014

Jack Faxon was a 24-year-old government teacher in Detroit back in 1960, when the state voted to call a constitutional convention.

Partly egged on by his students, he ran for delegate, and surprisingly, won. When the convention began, he was the youngest member. Republicans had a two-to-one majority, but that didn’t matter so much, Faxon, still trim, fit and healthy, told me. 

“Things weren’t like they are now. Actually, there were really three parties – the old guard Republicans, the progressive Republicans, led by (George) Romney, and we Democrats.” 

Faxon may have been a very junior delegate, but said he played one key role. Early on, he was approached by the head of the Detroit teachers’ retirement system. 

He wanted language that would protect public service pensions. Faxon agreed. He brought it to his committee. “It wasn’t controversial at all,” he told me, laughing. “Everybody agreed pensions should be protected. It was just like getting them to agree Sunday was Sunday.” 

The final language read: “The accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system of the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.”

So Faxon was horrified when U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes ruled pensions could be cut. He knows federal law trumps state law, but he still thinks this is wrong – and it's sending shock waves through municipal circles nationwide. “Absolutely this should be appealed,” he said.

To me, it is surprising that more people haven’t sought out Faxon’s views on Detroit for a number of reasons.

Now 77, he is on top of things, and still working full time as headmaster of the International School in Farmington Hills, an institution he founded 46 years ago.

However, following the Constitutional Convention, he went on to the Legislature, where he served 30 years, mostly in the Senate. There, he became head of the appropriations committee, and the patron saint of arts funding. Faxon said he began by slipping small amounts into the budget for the Detroit Institute of Arts. 

That wasn’t controversial back in the '70s, and it led to the formation of the Michigan Council on the Arts. He thinks the whole notion of even appraising the art was wrong.

“This was never seen as investment,” like stock or pork belly futures but a permanent asset,” like air and water. Destroy art, he believes, and you no longer have a city, but a refugee camp. 

Faxon, who lived in Detroit till he was in his forties, thinks we are looking at the city’s mammoth debt in the wrong way. “What matters is not the total amount the actuarial tables say we owe, but insuring there is enough cash flow.” 

Eventually, he thinks the problem will take care of itself. What bothers him, though, is that in its glory days, Detroit provided far more to the state in terms of revenue than it ever got back. The rest of the state had no problems taking that money then, he noted.

“But now when Detroit needs the money, and the state has a surplus, the attitude is – why should I help?”

My guess is that we know the answer.