Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Ament Will Lose And How Taxpayers Will Suffer

By - Feb 7th, 2002 06:44 am

Tom Ament‘s suit against the recall petitions will probably fail. That’s the prediction of George Dunst, legal counsel for the state elections board. Dunst says his office advised the county elections office, and that he believes all necessary paper work was filed by the recall organizers.

“I would hope the court is going to find that because all the necessary information was on EB1 [the form filled out by recall organizers], that the organizers substantially complied with the requirements of law,” Dunst says.

The form which Ament’s lawyer Robert Friebert says was not filled out was the “Statement of Intent to Circulate Recall Petition,” which sounds very official. But Dunst says he created this form simply as a convenience. “The only reason I did that is for those people who didn’t have enough room on the recall petition to state the reason for the recall,” Dunst says. “Of course, no good deed goes unpunished.”

“We never considered this form to be essential,” Dunst adds, “as long as the other form is filled out.”

Dunst not only believes the recall organizers complied with the law, but raises the question of Ament’s lack of timeliness. “The registration [by recall organizers] was four weeks ago. You don’t have them get 80,000 signatures and use up all that shoe leather and then come in and say, ‘oh, you made a mistake.'” By not responding sooner, Dunst suggests, Ament will create more suspicion of him by the courts. “People who sit on their rights usually lose them.”

Even if the recall organizers did not state their reason for the recall (and it appears they did do this on EB1), the law does not require them to do so. State statute 9.10(1)(b) says, “A recall petition for a city, village, town or school district office shall contain a statement of a reason for the recall,” but leaves out county officials.

Later, in 9.10(1)(d), the statute again reiterates a statement of reason for the recall is only required “in the case of a petition for the recall of a city, village, town or school district officer,” leaving out county officials.

Indeed, the state elections board, in its instructions for the recall of county officials, flatly states, “No statement of reason for the recall of a county officer is required.”

All of which suggests Ament’s lawyers may have a tough time winning this suit.

How the Pension Plan Will Gouge Taxes

Reading stories about the pension plan, and comments by Ament, you’d almost think the pension plan had been passed with Monopoly dollars, and had no impact on taxes. After all, the county pension fund had grown so much from investment returns, there was supposed to be a huge surplus available to spend. In fact, property taxpayers will be gouged by the pension plan, and Tom Ament knew that better than anyone.

Documents provided to Ament by his former head of human resources, Gary Dobbert, show the lavish pension and benefits package would require no property tax contribution to the pension fund only for the first year. For the next four years after that, the county would have to contribute an estimated $21.7 million. That’s nearly as much tax support as it takes to run the entire county parks system, which requires an annual subsidy of $25 million.

This cost estimate assumed the pension fund continued the same annual increase (8.5 percent) as the county was then projecting. But even if the pension fund averaged a 12 percent increase, there would still be tax contributions required to support the new pension boosts.

It should be noted this was just an estimate of the potential tax costs, and it assumed there would be no cost to the backdrop plan that has already generated huge payouts to former Ament aides like Tom Mollan. Nobody knows what the actual impact of the county pension plan will be, but it’s entirely possible it will require much higher tax contributions than once assumed.

Even before the controversial pension plan was passed, the county offered a Cadillac program that paid employees up to 80 percent of their final average salary (along with paid-up health insurance for life for veterans). County taxpayers have paid dearly for that plan: from 1991-2000, property tax money of $138 million was contributed to the pension fund.

In the years to come, taxpayers will be on the line for more contributions to the pension fund because 1,400 employees hired before 1982 will get as much as a 25 percent increase in their pensions, as well as the opportunity to build that further through the backdrop provision. The pension plan boosts, in the long run, could have very serious consequences for county taxpayers.

Ament’s Legacy

Over the years, I have been a frequent critic of Tom Ament, but I have always found him to be a likeable, modest man. With disarming simplicity, he would often say “I want to do good for the people.” Whatever my reservations about his policies, I believed him when he said that.

Last night, one television station caught Ament in Madison for a meeting of the Wisconsin Counties Association, and Ament once again offered his simple line about doing good for the people. Meanwhile, his lawyer had gone to court in an attempt to frustrate an exercise in democracy by some 80,000 people because of some obscure technicality.

this is a tactic of such astonishing audacity it contradicts every profession of doing good Ament has ever made. It may overshadow anything else Ament has ever done. If Ament has given up hope of being reelected, as his recent statements indicate, and if his prime concern is his legacy as a county official, you can only wonder what he is thinking. There is a hard-core minority of people in the county who still want to believe in the county executive’s fundamental fairness, that he didn’t fully understand the ramifications of the pension plan he was passing. But how can you continue to believe that after his lawyers attempt to undermine the democratic process on the thinnest of pretexts?

Indeed, what’s striking about Ament’s latest action is how it mirrors his pension plan. He is operating legally, just as he did with the pension plan. He is relying on the fact that he is the insider who knows county government better than anyone else, which is how the pension plan was passed. And the legal suit, just as with the pension plan, will benefit Tom Ament at the expense of average citizens. Increasingly, that seems to be Tom Ament’s legacy.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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