Richest Public Pensions in State History
Here are the backdrop payments received by 1,712 county employees. 255 collected anywhere from $255,000 to $1 million -- plus a monthly pension.
In November 2000, the Milwaukee County Board approved, on a 20-to-5 vote, a plan with new pension benefits for non-union workers that were particularly lucrative for veteran employees. In February, 2001, the board voted 22-2 to extend similar benefits to union employees.
The plan was passed with no media scrutiny. In October 2001, then MilwaukeeWorld.com editor Bruce Murphy (current editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com) wrote a story detailing the benefits and wrote second story filling in more details. Murphy’s story reported that Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament, should he serve as planned until 2008, would leave with a “backdrop” lump sum pension payment in excess of $2 million.
The issue received little attention until Murphy did a feature story for Milwaukee Magazine on the issue. This soon prompted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to report the story on January 6, 2002, the first of a run of front-page stories devoted to the issue, reinforced by considerable coverage by TV and radio news coverage.
The resulting public outrage forced Ament to fire many of his cabinet members, sign a form foregoing his backdrop and eventually resign from office. Seven county supervisors were also recalled from office. Measured by the number of officials thrown out of office, it was the biggest political scandal in Milwaukee history.
The public’s outrage led directly to the election of Scott Walker, who served from 2002-2010, and claimed the mantle of a county reformer to run successfully for governor. But it was only under his successor Chris Abele that some reform of the backdrops was passed (with belated approval by the board), though it remains to be seen if the change will survive legal challenges.
To date, 1,712 county employees have collected a backdrop benefit, which is in addition to their monthly pension. Some 740 people have gotten at least a $100,000 lump sum benefit, 255 have gotten at least $250,000 and 40 received at least $500,000.
The list below starts with the best paid employee to date, former assistant D.A. Thomas Schulz, who collected a backdrop of $1.080 million, plus an annual pension of $67,112, and goes from richest to poorest down to Deloris Bond, a nursing assistant whose backdrop payment was less than $3,200. Two other assistant DAs, Donald Jackson and William Molitor, also collected backdrops worth more than $1 million.
Other notables include Deputy District Attorney Jon Reddin ($976,499 backdrop), former county supervisor and court commissioner John Valenti ($536,051), ex-Ament aide Tom Mollan ($447,868), former county supervisor and assistant corporation counsel Richard Bussler ($425,307), court commissioner Anthony Machi ($407,816), Sheriff Lev Baldwin ($333,450), county board research staff head Tom Kuzma ($290,407), Register of Deeds Walter Barczak ($254,767), Corporation Counsel Robert Ott ($125,454). Ott and Tom Mollan were influential proponents of the pension plan and Kuzma was an Ament loyalist who some county board leaders didn’t trust to do research on the backdrop proposal. And Baldwin was accused of making political threats to board members to make sure political officials were eligible for the pension sweeteners.
As lucrative as these backdrops are, all recipients also received a monthly pension for life, which in itself was often very generous.