Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will County Pass Another Pension Giveaway?

Board members favor a “grandfather clause” protecting retirees with illegal payments that could cost taxpayers $10 million.

By - Feb 3rd, 2015 11:44 am

Few county officials were more adroit at milking the taxpayers than Tom Zablocki. Zablocki served as county clerk for 20 years, from 1968 to 1988. During his last term, two investigations by the old Milwaukee Journal, in 1986 and 1988, found he worked between 4 and 5 hours a day. Much of his time was spent working on his stamp-collecting hobby. He was also accused of spending time on the job conducting private real estate and legal business.

The voters, not surprisingly, didn’t look kindly on this and he lost his bid for reelection. But the wily Zablocki, who still had friends in the courthouse, later found another way to milk the taxpayers.

In the early 1990s, Milwaukee County officials approved a “buy-back” plan that allowed workers to go back in time and pay for pension contributions they hadn’t made in order to beef up their pensions. Many employees converted seasonal or part-time county stints in college and even high school into additional pension credits by paying pension contributions they had declined to make as young workers.

Zablocki apparently hadn’t made contributions to his pension. But in 2000, he managed to get hired to work for the county as a “program coordinator.” At the time the late F. Thomas Ament was County Executive and the courthouse was rife with cronyism: giving Zablocki another chance meant he could build a much better pension. (Zablocki and Ament both started in county government the same year and served together for 20 years.)

Zablocki used the buyback program to pay for pension contributions during his 20 years as county clerk, and worked as the program coordinator until June 2004 and then retired a wealthy man at age 64. He had only worked 24 years for the county, and hadn’t worked very hard, but was awarded a lump-sum “backdrop” payment of $375,322 in addition to an annual pension payment of $29,309. By now he’s collected at least $640,000 from the taxpayers.

But as it turned out, Zablocki, the consummate courthouse insider, made a mistake. County pension officials determined in 2007 that Zablocki’s buyback of his years as an elected official missed a deadline set in a county ordinance, and his payment was therefore too large under IRS rules. This was one of the revelations that came out in a mini-pension scandal unearthed by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter David Umhoefer, who revealed the existence of the buy-back program.

Some 200 or so buybacks were found to be in violation because employees wrongly bought back pension time using money transferred from their deferred compensation savings account; because the buyback payment exceeded 25 percent of the employee’s annual salary; or because the buyback was made too late.

In reaction, county board members quickly took action. They passed a unanimous resolution in 2007 “encouraging the Milwaukee County Pension Board “to cease any prospective payment of a pension benefit related to a buy in or buy back that has been determined to be in violation of Milwaukee County Ordinance or Federal law and… vigorously pursue recovery of any payments made” to these employees.

Nine of those county supervisors are still serving: Mark Borkowski, Gerry Broderick, Marina Dimitrijevic, Willie Johnson, Jr., Patricia Jursik, Michael Mayo, James (Luigi) Schmitt, John Weishan and Peggy Romo West.

But none of them, apparently ever did anything to assure that the resolution was enforced. “I know I didn’t,” supervisor Borkowski admitted to me last April. “I don’t believe any of my colleagues did.” Nor did the administration of then-County Executive Scott Walker do anything about the problem.

Umhoefer’s story won a Pulitzer Prize. Yet the Journal Sentinel never followed up on the story to make sure the illegal buybacks ended. This is the paper that was asleep when the massive pension scam of 2000-2001 was passed (and reported by yours truly), and now the paper had fallen asleep on its own prize-winning story.

So things stood until last year when the administration of County Executive Chris Abele discovered the situation and was immediately alarmed. Abele’s staff sent letters to some 200 county retirees warning that their monthly pension payments will be reviewed and could be lowered. Abele initially wanted to go after the retirees to collect some $26 million in overpayments and interest that these people illegally collected. But he has since offered a compromise, suggesting the county forego collecting the past overpayment and only take action to see that future overpayments — with an estimated value of $10 million — are not paid.

Marina Dimitrijevic

Marina Dimitrijevic

But board members are outraged that he would dare suggest this. Board chair Dimitrijevic told the Journal Sentinel that Abele’s plan, even with its alterations, is “immoral” She went on to say, “It seems unfair that an employer who made mistakes, now comes back and harms the security of older adults who served the public.”

Needless to say, that’s a direct contradiction to the resolution Dimitrijevic supported in 2007. As for the morality here, what about all the county employees who couldn’t benefit from this legally questionable buy-back option — the height of county cronyism — and therefore have lower pension payments? Is this fair to them?

What about all the county employees who must pay more into the pension system to help support the lucrative, wrongly-gotten retirement payments of people like Zablocki? Is this moral?

What about the taxpayers, who are being asked to pay for yet another pension giveaway that board members promised to end more than seven years ago? Is this moral?

County Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, Dimitrijevic’s ever-loyal lieutenant, said Abele’s proposal is “out of touch with common sense fairness.” You could perhaps make that argument about trying to recoup pension payments made in the past (though they violate county ordinances), but is it unfair to stop future illegal payments from being made to retirees? Let us hope Lipscomb never has a chance to set the rules for county district attorneys.

Lipscomb also complained that Abele’s proposal has “an unknown actuarial impact.” Whatever the impact, it can only help taxpayers. And if he wants an exact estimate, why not wait for the ongoing study of exactly how many employees benefitted from illegal payments and by how much? Instead, the board is poised to pass a resolution on Thursday that will “grandfather” all these retirees, to prevent Abele or any county executive from ever stopping so much as a dollar of these future payments from going to retirees.

Why this rush to pass this resolution? Board members, I suspect, want to do this before taxpayers figure out they are being ripped off. So if you are reading this story, may I suggest you help spread the word.

Dimitrijevic has argued Abele’s plan could expose the county to lawsuits from retirees. Perhaps. But given that the payments violate county ordinances, how successful would the suits be? And isn’t this an issue for the county corporation counsel, not for a non-lawyer like Dimitrijevic?

Board members portray these retirees as lost sheep who were misled by the advice they got from county managers. But if you go back to Umhoefer’s story on this, you get a picture of county insiders manipulating the system to jack up their pension payments. People talk in the courthouse and one of the biggest topics has always been the pension system. My guess is that many — perhaps all of the 200 or so who benefitted — knew the buy-back program was something of a scam. The ones who didn’t have the insider knowledge probably didn’t apply for it.

Supervisors have referred to county retirees who could lose their house if their pension is reduced. But we have yet to hear the name of any such person, or a description of their financial situation. One name that came up last spring was Bob Milleran employee who retired in 2009 with a $129,243 backdrop and an annual pension of $35,208, county records show. And how much of that gain was because his payments violated county ordinances? Board members apparently don’t want to wait for the ongoing county study to find out.

Among the county insiders who got bigger pensions by violating county pensions are former supervisors Daniel Casey and Tom Bailey (famed as a board member who always worked part-time while drawing a full-time salary), former District Attorney E. Michael McCann, not to mention Vera Westphal, a zoo administrator and county Pension Board member, and Rick Ceschin, deputy director of the county’s personnel department.

The entire buy-back program, even for those who followed the rules, smells to high heaven. The beneficiaries include former supervisor and parks director Sue Baldwin and her husband, former sheriff Lev Baldwin, who I’ve estimated could collect up to $4 million in retirement payments from county taxpayers during their lives.

Then there is Supervisor Michael Mayo, who has also chastised Abele for daring to fix this problem, saying “we cannot blame” the retirees. Perhaps that’s because Mayo paid $6,813 to purchase two years of pension credit for three summers he worked in county parks in the 1970s. This gained him a 33 percent increase in his pension.

Mayo, of course, also passed the 2000 and 2001 pension plan, which has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions and turned some employees into millionaires. More than 740 people have gotten at least a $100,000 lump sum backdrop benefit, more than 255 have gotten at least $250,000 and 40 received anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million — all in addition to a generous lifetime monthly payment.

The cost of the buy-back program, which Umhoefer estimated at $50 million, was largely driven by the fact that it gave these employees a chance to get a much bigger backdrop and 25 percent pension bonus, both features of the 2000-2001 pension plan. Those benefits got bigger courtesy of the buy-back program which allowed employees to jack up their years of service.

Given the community outrage over the 2000-2001 pension plan, given that a county executive was forced to resign, and some seven county supervisors were recalled from office, you’d think the board wouldn’t dare commit another such outrage. Wrong.

Short Takes

-Back in April, Gov. Walker had no explanation for why he took no action about the illegal pensions.  I emailed his spokesperson Laurel Patrick asking if he had any comment now, and so far haven’t gotten a response.

-Then there are the unions. The 2000-2001 pension plan was a complete surprise to the employee unions, who had nothing to do with devising it. But ever since then county union leaders have rushed to defend these benefits, which makes them look like they are out to milk the taxpayers.

Thus, Boyd McCamish, executive director of AFSCME District Council 48, has blasted Abele, saying: “This is a vivid illustration of a politician tragically out of touch with the day-to-day struggles of people who don’t fit into his tax bracket.”

I wonder if McCamish is including the likes of Tom Zablocki when he laments the struggles of these poor retirees?

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

40 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Will County Pass Another Pension Giveaway?”

  1. Rich says:

    Why this rush to pass this resolution? Board members, I suspect, want to do this before taxpayers figure out they are being ripped off. So if you are reading this story, may I suggest you help spread the word.

    Exactly. The superset all get to vote, but only the subset of retirees plus the smaller percentage that pays attention knows about this. So, to protect your job (as a supervisor), protect the people that can currently make the most noise (retirees), regardless of “what’s right”…

  2. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Our Conservative newspaper and the net go far afield out state giving us the biggest Conservative following in state. I can tell you that Milwaukee is universally hated by far too many people for these shenanigans. They look at us as an internal hole where they pour in money. It is damn near impossible to get something passed to help Milwaukee. it is going to be interesting to see what happens tot he Arena funding. Unless out state dems vote for it and Milwaukee county and city ante up it will be tough haul.

  3. PMD says:

    If someone hates Milwaukee (a city you claim to love WCD), let them. They are ignorant fools.

  4. Dennis Hughes says:

    Bruce Murphy is a complete hack. This program benefited thousands of retirees, but the only retirees whose pensions are considered improper are the 200 that relied on the County’s advice, which ran afoul of arcane IRS rules. So, if these employees had invested in pension credits with cash rather than, say, deferred comp there would be no issue and you would not be calling their pension investments improper. Chris Abele is a monster for attempting to cut these elderly people’s pensions rather than make the retroactive changes that the Board supports because they don’t affect taxpayers, the pension fund, or the retirees. Bruce Murphy is bought and paid for by Chris Abele.

  5. Bruce Thompson says:

    I don’t usually agree with WCD but in this case he is right. These are the kinds of things that undermines any ability to get support from the rest of the state. Even if the mistake was the county’s it has a perfect right to adjust the amounts.

  6. Robert Denis says:

    The corrupt afscme hack would support this corruption.

  7. cmowley says:

    Mr. Murphy You have used some examples to prove your thesis but let me offer a few other examples: a medical technologist now in her 70’s that retired 20 years ago will end up with no pension if the County Exec. has his way, a nurse in her 70’s that retired in 1995 when the hospital closed who will lose 75% of her pension and is told to pay back over $200,000, an 82 year old nurse that is blind and in a wheel chair who retired in 1991 who will lose half of her county pension and owe close to $90,000. None of these individuals had pension “enhancements” or back drops or escalators or any of the things you mention. They are elderly women who will likely be in poverty if the County Exec. has his way and they have done nothing wrong other than believe that the pension staff were people to be trusted. They did everything right. It was the County that made the mistake not the worker and the County should do the right thing for these long term, long retired individuals. They cannot make different decisions and can’t return to work as they are past those days of ability It is also interesting that Scott Walker always so outspoken on pensions did not take any action on this problem all the years he was at the County and he had labor relations staff that received pension credits from multiple public systems and continue to do so now that they are in Madison. I have told dozens of people about the plight of these retirees and not a person I met felt it was right to strip these elderly women of their benefits at this stage of their lives. So if you are going to tell a story lets be sure it is the story of these individuals as well.

  8. Phil Stevemanowicz says:

    So Dennis, does that mean Dave Umhoefer, the Journal-Sentinel and Pulitzer-Prize committee were bought and paid-for by Chris Abele too — preemptively?

  9. Michael says:

    Thank you Dennis Hughes, Staff Representative at AFSCME Council 40, for illustrating Bruce’s point about the Unions. You could be out there fighting for fair and equitable treatment for all involved. Instead you are calling people Hacks that are bought and paid for Monsters.

    I’m sure that will win a lot of support! Keep up the good work!

  10. bruce Murphy says:

    To cmowley: I am all for the discussion. It’s the board that is rushing to grandfather all these people’s benefits before the county has finished its study of the situation. And all of the people whose benefits are under scrutiny here did get a special pension enhancement by being allowed to buy back years of service. As for the woman you claim would have to pay $90,000 back, Abele isn’t asking for that but asking to end future overpayments. Finally, these are stories of unnamed people; I think it would he helpful to know the names to understand their full story.

  11. Dennis says:

    Michael – Actually my position has a lot of support, UNANIMOUS bipartisan support from the Board Finance Committee.

    Bruce – Abele is the only one that has acted without enough information. As you say, Abele’s initial plan was to collect past pension payments. What you fail to report is that his initial plan to collect $26 million would have been limited by a 6-yr statute of limitations that would have made $20 million uncollectible. However, the County would have owed that $20 million to the pension fund, therefore, his initial plan to “save taxpayer money” would have COST taxpayers AT LEAST $20 million.

    Yet, you choose to rail against Chairwoman Dimitrijevic and the Board like a broken record rather than report on the real scandal here. Truly pathetic reporting.

  12. Bruce Thompson says:

    How does collecting only $6 million of $26 million owed make the taxpayers worse off than not collecting anything? Your math doesn’t make any sense to me.

  13. Dennis says:

    Bruce – If the County had chosen the option to collect past pension payments, which Abele initially endorsed, the County would have created a $26 million obligation to the Pension Fund. The County would then be responsible for hiring a debt collector to collect that $26 million from the elderly and even the estates of deceased retirees. Any amounts that went uncollected would be the responsibility of taxpayers. What Abele didn’t know when he advocated for that option in the April 23rd MJS story was that there is the 6-yr statute of limitations on collecting past pension payments, so he essentially advocated for taxpayers paying $20 million into the pension fund despite the fact that the fund does not need the money because it had already included these 200 retirees into its actuarial calculations. The Pension Fund has endorsed the County Board action. Bruce Murphy might be the only person to publicly support Abele’s plan.

  14. bruce murphy says:

    Dennis, I appreciate that you are no longer calling me names and are now arguing on the merits. I’m not concerned with the squabbling between the board and Abele, but rather what is the best outcome for the taxpayers and I think that is for board not to act until we know all the facts. As we learned with the pension scandal of 2000-2001, once benefits, no matter how egregious lucrative, are awarded, it is all but impossible to take them back. Why the rush to pass a resolution that will permanently prevent the county from stopping what appears to be overpayment of pension money to insiders who benefitted at the expense of other county employees and the taxpayers? Let’s have a full, considered discussion of this when we know all the facts.

  15. Dennis says:

    Bruce – How can you describe these pension credits as pension “overpayments”? These retirees INVESTED in a program that the County sent them a letter offering them. These are not fat cat insiders. Everyone that was eligible for the program was offered the opportunity. Some people invested in such a way that their benefits violated IRS rules, but it was the County’s mistake to offer them that advice. However, these elderly people did not receive more in pension benefits than retirees that invested in the same program with cash. Your article and comments continue to inaccurately describe the buy back program, it’s really sad.

  16. Dennis says:

    Bruce – Did you even read the December report from Corp Counsel on the resolution of this issue? It buries Abele and discusses all the facts you neglect that I am citing. Did you watch/listen to the three hour Finance Committee discussion? There would be pitchforks outside Abele’s mansion if this story was being accurately reported by anyone other than the Shepherd Express.

  17. Bruce Murphy says:

    Dennis, the county had a very generous pension plan as is, but the buyback program was expanded at the behest of county insiders to make it even more generous by allowing employees to count seasonal and part-time work from their high school or college days to ramp up the value of their pensions. In many cases this also enabled to them to get a higher backdrop and 25% bonus under the controversial 2000-2001 pension plan. (Some collect more than 100% of their final average salary.) This is what you call an investment. The Zablocki example is the most egregious I know about but we won’t know all the details until the county study is done. So why the rush to settle this? Let’s hear all the facts before we decide the best course of action.

  18. Dennis says:

    Unnecessary pension cuts should not be considered “taxpayer savings.” The report you are waiting on was requested by Abele and is a fishing expedition to feed the bloodthirsty anti pension reporters in Milwaukee. It is irrelevant to the question of whether this problem should be fixed retroactively. How is this story not about how Abele is outing himself as a Republican here? Wake up and do some research.

    You still haven’t answered, how can you call these overpayments? It’s inaccurate.

  19. Robert R says:

    What part of “illegal” is tough to understand? If there are no consequences to breaking laws, what’s the point? I understand that there may be people that had no ill intent that run afoul of the law, but that happens.

    I do think that it’s time for anecdotes, on either side, to end. Oh no, what about this 70 year old nurse, who may or may not exist, has never been a good bar for talking about a significant group of people. On the other side, a couple of corrupt politicians on the other side, isn’t necessarily a good barometer either. Yeah, it plays well with the media, but it’s an awful way to make policy. You can find sympathetic and unsympathetic outliers in any group of people.

  20. tim haering says:

    $10M?! Just a fistful of dollars for a few dollars more. IT’s 2 mules for sister, Sara. The punks feel lucky.

  21. Bill Sweeney says:

    Why doesn’t Tom Zablocki, Tom Bailey, the Baldwins, et al, ie the ones who made out like bandits from the pension swindle, pay back some of their ill gotten gains so that the elderly medical assistant, the elderly nurses, et al can be assured of having enough pension benefits to take care of themselves?

    I would wager that a clear majority of Milwaukee County citizens would want Milwaukee County government retirees to have a “decent pension,” enough to live on. What people are outraged about are those employees who received, and continue to receive, indecent (perhaps too polite a word) amounts of money which comes out of the taxpayer’s pockets.

    And with the downsizing of the Journal-Sentinel, who is even pretending to be “the watchdog of the public interest?” And if Bruce Murphy had not broken the story on the first pension scandal, what other scams might have occurred?

    And union officials should be trying to work out a plan that is fair and equitable to all concerned. Not to do so, unfortunately, helps to tarnish the reputation of all unions.

  22. Dennis says:

    Bill Sweeney – Bruce Murphy’s biased article purposely confuses the fact that the County Board’s action has unanimous support BECAUSE it is an equitable solution that benefits all parties except Chris Abele and writers that profit off pension scandals.

  23. Robert R says:

    All parties? How does this benefit Milwaukee County taxpayers?

  24. Dennis says:

    It will avoid lawsuits that will cost millions (possibly more than any “savings”) and allows for increased economic activity that would otherwise be wasted. Does anyone really want their penny back in return for ruining 200 people’s retirement? The Pension Fund endorses the plan because providing these contractually obligated pension payments WILL NOT AFFECT the pension fund.

    Only hyper conservatives like Chris Abele and Scott Walker would consider the proceeds of pension theft to be taxpayer “savings.”

  25. Kyle says:

    I find it interesting that the only two people rooting for this are Dennis Hughes, Staff Representative at AFSCME Council 40 and Candice Owley, President, WI Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals. Two people with a professional vested interest, it seems.

    I’m also amused by casting Abele as a hyper conservative and Bruce as heavily biased toward hyper conservatives.

  26. Dennis says:

    Also, the entire County Board Finance Committee, most likely the entire Board at their meeting tomorrow, the entire Pension Board, and all County retirees. Who is supportive of Abele’s plan again? Oh yeah, only Abele and anti-pension profiteers.

  27. Kyle says:

    And anyone else currently scamming the government. I’m sure the idea of having your overpayments confirmed for life by the County Board sounds like a great precedent to set. You probably have their support now.

  28. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    For years I have asked this simple question: why should public employees get better salaries, pensions, health ,dental vacations, days off, holidays, sick days and you cannot fire anyone, than th rest of us their bosses????

  29. Michael says:

    It’s not pension theft if the pension was illegal in the first place.

    They have been stealing from the county for 20 years. Why should they continue to be allowed to steal?

  30. Bill Sweeney says:

    Mutual of America: “Many industry experts recommend saving enough to provide an annual retirement income equal to 80% of your current income.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how all of the county retirees, both before and after the pension scandal, match up against this prescription? So for each retiree, does his or her pension benefit plus the social security benefit fall short of or exceed, say 80% of the average of the last 3 years of their annual incomes?

  31. Robert R says:

    Where’s the proof that it will ruin anyone’s retirement? You don’t have to name names, but demographics, financial circumstances, etc. should be part of the discussion.

    Yeah, I want my “pennies” back if the vast majority of people benefiting from an illegal pension scheme aren’t going to live any less well. Or, not even have my pennies refunded, but see those millions spent on useful things like maintenance or transit. Things that might have a more useful effect on the community and local economy than winter trips to Florida or Arizona.

  32. Dennis says:

    These people have been speaking publicly at County Board meetings for nearly 10 months. You can see them speak on legistar. You people are aggressively ignorant.

  33. Robert R says:

    I see you’re still trotting out the anecdotal evidence. Like anecdotes are reliable evidence of anything.

    Giving away $10 million, accrued illegally, shouldn’t be the county’s first, second, or third option. Not without a thorough vetting of the facts. Especially when people can say anything, without it necessarily being accurate.

    Who’s affected (you don’t have to name names, but a listing of occupation, service time, what they’ve been paid, and what they should have been paid, and what the proposed effect going forward is for everyone) should be the least that the public expects before the County Board approves anything. That should be part of the public record and out in the open before anyone votes on anything.

    If the County Board doesn’t want to disclose that information, then Abele’s staff should.

  34. Dennis says:

    Robert, you should watch the Board’s 3-hr discussion of the issue from the January Finance Committee meeting or the 1.5 hr discussion from December. There has been a thorough vetting unless you only get your news from Urban Milwaukee because Bruce is speaking up for the first time in 11months just days before the County Board votes to pass a solution that is fair to all parties.

  35. Dennis says:

    So, Bruce Murphy is more conservative than Deanna Alexander on pension issues. Good to know, I’ll remember that!

  36. Tim says:

    It’s hard to go back and remember all of the media coverage back in the years when this whole mess started, but as an average blue collar worker in the private sector, I could never understand how those in control of the county government ever got away with the scam that they produced first for themselves and for other county workers. I have nothing against the pensions that county workers accrued over their years of service, but come on, the rest of this game that continues is a scam. And it seems that while the media has slept over the years on this one, so have county residents. At least Abele is attempting to correct things, a bit.

  37. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Thank you Bruce for exposing all of this you are a real Conservative. Time to go to 401k’s like the rest of us. Let them holler.

  38. Dennis says:

    Yeah, it’s an inconvenient truth that 2/3rds of the pensions Abele attempted to cut were earned before the Ament scandal. Abele is trying to turn this into the Ament scandal for his own personal political gain. You and Bruce Murphy have fallen for it. Truly sad journalism.

  39. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    All of you whiners, please explain to those of us not attached to the govt. teat!!! Why should public employees get better salaries, pensions, health, dental vacations, days off, holidays and cannot get fired, than the rest of us who pay the bills.????

  40. Billy-Bob says:

    As a nurse who retired from Milwaukee County after WORKING (as in HARD) in the General Hospital, and later, the Mental Health Center, working with some of the most difficult patients in the State, I could have made a MUCH better wage working in the private sector, but chose to earn much lower wages for better (and less costly to taxpayers, a class to which I, too, belong, by the way) vacation time, and a pension I could count on in my old age. I can’t speak for all the other retirees, but I was contacted by the pension office regarding buy-back opportunities, and finally decided to purchase time back from my initial County employment back in the early ’80’s, when I was hired as a “temp” to staff the hospital when there were no vacant positions available. I bought about 8 months for a LOT of money, which was deducted from my other retirement savings, a Deferred Compensation, 457b account. I certainly did not know, nor was I told by anyone that using Deferred Comp funds was an illegal transaction. I resent the comments about being attached to the “teat.” Maybe y’all should go mow your own parks and take care of your own mentally ill patients. I’m sick of this.

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