Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

What Karen Ordinans Really Thought About Ament’s Pension

By - Jan 11th, 2002 04:31 pm
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It’s been amusing to hear County Board chair Karen Ordinans declare her outrage about the county pension plan. Last fall I interviewed her and she defended the huge pensions going to Tom Ament and others.

It was on October 8 and 10th that I wrote stories detailing the huge pensions going to Ament and company. Copies of the article were passed around the courthouse and by the time I began calling county board members in late October for a follow-up story in Milwaukee Magazine, it was clear that they had read the story and knew about Ament’s $2 million windfall. The story had also gotten coverage by Charlie Sykes and other talk radio shows. Yet one board member told me there had been absolutely no discussion of changing the pension plan.

Most board members I talked to decried the money going to Ament. Ordinans, however, defended the pension plan and its huge pay outs. “Yes, there will be a group of individuals that will benefit tremendously,” she said. “The focus cannot be on the few individuals who may get a significant gain.”

“You don’t always like everything in the overall package,” Ordinans continued. “The pension package allowed us to reach a labor agreement [with the employees union] that did not break the bank. We think we made a very good public policy move.”

Ordinans did say “we really rely on information that is provided to us by the Department of Administration.” But when I asked her about the details of the package, it was clear she understood what she was signing.

I asked her how the board could justify offering an unprecedented 25% increase in the pension of any employee hired prior to 1982 who continues until May, 2004. Ordinans said “There were conversations about that and we concluded that those are the numbers that we need.”

I then asked her if she knew about the backdrop provision, which uses compounded interest to amass huge lump sum payments for longtime employees like Ament. “Supervisors were provided examples of how the backdrop worked,” she said.

The board’s finance chairman, Supervisor Lynne DeBruin, says that Gary Dobbert, the head of the county’s Human Resources Department, would only provide examples of lower paid employees and what they would get from the backdrop. But why didn’t Ordinans insist on Dobbert presenting examples of higher ranking employees?

DeBruin says that before the plan was passed, she learned of a county nurse who would get a $275,000 pay out from the backdrop provision. Why didn’t she share this information with other board members?

Two board members claim that Ordinans told them that DeBruin did share her concerns about this $275,000 payoff in a private meeting of the two leaders. What was Ordinans’ response? The two board members say Ordinans told them she advised DeBruin that “leadership is supporting this. You swallow hard and vote no.” DeBruin did in fact vote against the proposal.

(In a conversation I had with her today, Ordinans admitted that DeBruin did meet with her about the nurse. Ordinans, however, says she did not tell DeBruin how to vote on the issue.)

The final and most important question was how the board could justify offering this massive hand-out to elected officials. Ament and others defended this to me on the grounds that all employees, hired or elected, have always been treated the same. But in fact, elected officials have always enjoyed better treatment than other employees, with a higher pension multiplier, free parking and other perks. So why not treat them differently in this situation, too?

“It’s very difficult to exclude any group in Milwaukee County,” Ordinans said. “We’re the Milwaukee County family.”

If Ordinans understood the details of the plan, did other board members? “I believe there was a general understanding of the [pension] resolution,” Ordinans told me back in early November. “We made what we feel is good public policy, given the situation.”

Among other supervisors I interviewed back then, one estimated that “60 percent of the supervisors didn’t realize Ament was getting the golden parachute he is.”

That would suggest that 40 percent of the board knew full well what Ament would be getting. Three likely suspects are supervisors Penny Podell, Tom Bailey and Rich Nyklewicz. All three are old-timers eligible for the backdrop provision. By 2008, Bailey will gain a pay out of nearly $400,000 and Podell will be eligible for $310,000. Wouldn’t these three officials have done some math to figure out how they were personally affected by the pension provision?

Then there’s Supervisor Daniel Diliberti, who defended the payments to Ament and other elected officials because “they were getting the same benefit as other employees.”

Now that the mainstream media has discovered this issue, Ordinans and every other board member is outraged by the whole thing. Given that they all knew about this last October and did nothing about it, these protestations ring a bit hollow. This three month delay in taking action is something the public surely needs to know about, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has yet to provide the details. To avoid embarrassment that it waited three months to cover this issue, the newspaper has so far decided not to expose Ordinans and others.

I am happy to report, however, that Journal Sentinel editors let me know they intend to cover the chronology of this fascinating story and the role Milwaukeeworld played in it. Until such time as that, you, dear readers, are the only ones who are fully informed about the board’s duplicity.

Why Did Ament Do It?

In retrospect, you have to wonder why Tom Ament championed a pension plan that could get him in such trouble. Why would his loyalists, like Dobbert or County Corporation Counsel Robert Ott, fashion and lobby for a plan that could get their boss defeated in 2004 if the public learned about it?

The answer is that Ament was considering retiring in 2004. According to DeBruin, the prospect of Ament stepping down, and of many long-term administrators leaving in anticipation of that, was among the factors discussed as a reason to sweeten the pension. The board would give Ament loyalists an incentive to continue, in the form of a backdrop that compounded interest on their pension as long as they continued to work for the county.

The timing of Dobbert’s plan is a dead giveaway. Long-term employees would get a 25 percent increase in their pension if they worked until May 2004, when Ament’s term expired. In short, Ament would get the full 25 percent if he finished his term.

Ott and Dobbert knew that if they could get the plan passed it would be difficult to overturn. In fact, Ott flatly told me the courts would never allow this. So even if the public learned about it, what could they do? Ament wasn’t running for reelection so they’d have no recourse.

Moreover, the only way the story would surface was if the one reporter who covers Milwaukee County, from the Journal Sentinel, had started asking questions. In that case, they could always back off from the plan. But the reporter didn’t ask any questions, so Dobbert and company had every reason to assume they were home free. Indeed, Journal Sentinel reporter Linda Spice was so lacking in curiosity that she failed to report on the issue even after copies of the Milwaukeeworld story were generating discussion at the courthouse. That was Ament’s ace in the hole: a press that didn’t care.

Then sometime in 2001, after the pension provision passed, Ament decided to run for reelection. He seemed to be the king of the county, who could get anything he wanted. So why not rule for another term?

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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