Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

County Pension Scandal Poster Boys

Six veterans seeking re-election voted for infamous pension plan that ripped off taxpayers.

By - Mar 3rd, 2016 11:39 am
County Pension Scandal Poster Boys

County Pension Scandal Poster Boys

Mark Borkowski is a survivor. He served for 23 years as a county supervisor, from 1992 until last August, when he won election to the Milwaukee Common Council in a special election to fill the seat vacated after the death of Joe Dudzik. By making the switch, Borkowski avoided the big cut in salary coming in April for county supervisors, who are being downgraded to part-time status and will see their salary drop from $50,679 to $24, 051.

Not only that, Borkowski saw his salary rise by 44 percent, since aldermen make $73,222.

Not only that, by leaving before the county salary declined, he could claim a pension based on the full-time county salary rather than the reduced amount, which should more than double the pension he gets. Now Borkowski can collect the county pension, even as he earns a city salary and starts building a city pension on top of the separate county pension.

Borkowski continues to get elected though he voted for the infamous county pension plan of 2000-2001 that would have earned then-Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament a pension payout of more than $2 million. “If you had told me Tom Ament got this kind of money, there’s no way I would have voted for this,” Borkowski told me, in one of several stories I did that blew the lid on this scandal.

So why didn’t Borkowski ask? Or simply read the legislation? The principal job of legislators is to legislate, yet Borkowski didn’t bother to find out the details of the law he voted for.

As a result of such laziness by Borkowski and other supervisors, the county board approved the richest pension plan in state history, which made millionaires of some employees. Some 740 people got at least a $100,000 lump sum benefit, 255 got at least $250,000 and 40 received at least $500,000 — in addition to a monthly pension for life. The plan has cost county taxpayers as much as $300 million.

Outraged taxpayers forced Ament to retire and recalled seven county supervisors from office, making this the biggest political scandal in Milwaukee’s history. But Borkowski has won office repeatedly since then and is now running for re-election to gain a four year term. He has an opponent, Tim Kenney, a veteran and political newcomer. Considering that city taxpayers are paying the majority of the county taxes going to these lucrative pensions Borkowski approved, I’d say the issue is still quite relevant.

Then there is Borkowski’s colleague, Ald. Tony Zielinski, who served 16 years, from 1988 on, as county supervisor. He traded up for the higher salary you get as an alderman, winning election in 2004.

Zielinski, like many supervisors, has blamed the Ament administration for lying to him about the pension plan. By contrast, his colleague, then-County Supervisor Lynne DeBruin, asked some questions of the administration, said she couldn’t get satisfactory answers, and voted against the plan. Zielinski also blamed bad advice from the county consultant, Mercer Inc., which was later sued by the county. But back when the pension scandal exploded, not one supervisor mentioned the advice from Mercer, probably because the company simply dealt with the Ament administration and none of the supervisors knew about its advice.

It’s true the “backdrop” provision that helped drive up the lump-sum pension benefits was complicated, but the law also included a 25 percent bonus for veteran employees that allowed them to collect as much as 100 percent of the final average salary in their annual pension, a percentage far higher than the overwhelming majority of public (or private) employees in the nation get. There was nothing the least bit complicated about that provision yet Zielinski and a majority of supervisors voted for this package twice: once for non-represented employees and again for union employees.

Maybe Zielinski was distracted from his duties, since he was attending Marquette Law School to get his law degree. His colleagues considered him a part-time supervisor though he was drawing a full-time salary and now collects a county pension in the neighborhood of $16,000 annually for his somnolent performance on the board. He is running for reelection as an alderman (his opponent is Meagan Holman), and should Zielinski win, he will drive his city pension up to at least $29,000 annually. We taxpayers just keep getting an ever-rising bill for his various pensions, while we pay hundreds of millions for his lazy vote on the county pension plan.

Then there is Sup. Michael Mayo, who has served in that position since 1994. Mayo was Ament’s appointee to the county Pension Board and was at the center of policymaking driving the lucrative pension plan. Indeed, he also sat on the board when it passed another sleazy deal, the year before the major pension plan increased, that gave veteran insiders a way to drive up their pensions by counting their prior employment in a federal program that specifically excluded participants from pension benefits.

The atmosphere in the courthouse at the time was one of pure greed, with top officials scheming to get rich off the backs of taxpayers. Mayo was right in the middle of that yet never objected. Years later he did everything he could to frustrate an effort by County Executive Chris Abele to cap backdrop payments, which Mayo could directly benefit from. Yet he keeps getting reelected. His opponent in the April election is Valerie Sauve.

Then there is Sup. John F. Weishan Jr., who was new to the board when he voted for the county pension plan, but he was the brother of then-county board chair Karen Ordinans and surely should have known from her the inner details of the pension plan. Weishan has vociferously blamed Mercer Inc. for misleading the board. But I interviewed Ordinans at length after the pension plan passed and she never mentioned the company’s advice.

Weishan has served since 2000 and should he be reelected, will actually see his pension benefit decline significantly, since it will be based on the new part-time salary of about $23,000. (Though if he serves long enough, he may make some of that back through the backdrop provision.) He is opposed by Scott Espeseth, who previously ran for office as a Republican opponent to Democratic Rep. Daniel Riemer and lost.

The other two politicians still serving in office who voted for the 2000-2001 pension plan are supervisors Jim (Luigi) Schmitt and Willie Johnson, Jr. (The latter voted against the package of benefits for non-represented employees but voted in favor for union employees.) Neither has an opponent in the April election. If they ever do face challengers, their irresponsible vote on the pension plan still has consequences: it can be seen today in the deterioration of the county parks, the reduction of county transit routes and other reductions in county services, all due to the huge costs of that infamous pension plan. The impact of the decision made by these six politicians continues to haunt this community.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

13 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: County Pension Scandal Poster Boys”

  1. Gary says:

    Thank you Bruce!

  2. Frieda C says:

    IIRC, didn’t the Human Resources director at the county get charged with felonies for his involvement? Legislators were not “lazy” simply because they do not fully understand pension accounting. That’s absurd. Pension accounting is complex. If the HR Director lies about the impact, one cannot make the leap that the legislators are lazy. Clearly, the constituents have spoken and they just happen to no agree with this reporter.

  3. Rich says:

    @Frieda C, you base your argument on the false assumption that the constituents spoke when they knew all of the information.

    Some might call this piece vindictive, but it’s this kind of sunlight that I love from UM.

  4. Jeff says:

    Thx for retelling the painful details. I hope that the deteriorating conditions of Milwaukee County’s parks and cultural sites inspire twinges of guilt from County pension winners, at least those who haven’t already taken their taxpayer-paid bonuses to the Sunbelt.

  5. Bay View Gal says:

    I find it funny that Tony Zielinski continues to blame everyone else for his poor decision making habits. He should have been blaming himself for not paying attention to his work. When is he going to finally admit he made a mistake? Or is he like the Fonz who can’t say the word “sorry?”

  6. Bay View Gal says:

    Correction: the Fonz can’t say “wrong.” That’s about right in Tony’s case.

  7. Bill Kissinger says:

    Your original work would have earned a Pulitzer had it been in print at the time.

    This is a great remember of why our votes matter

  8. BT says:

    I was listening to a radio news report on the recent public meeting regarding the situation with the Domes and of course they are a treasure that ought to be restored, repaired, whatever you’d like to call it as well as how we keep hearing about the need for more spending on the county parks and since we’ve already got the wonderful park system in place, it sure seems like a waste to let it slide into disrepair, just like it would’ve sounded insane for me to show up at the Domes meeting and say “hey we can’t afford to fix the Domes, just tear them down and we can have a nice parking lot here instead”, I would’ve been laughed, or booed right out the door!

    Maybe if we weren’t WASTING money left and right and it is still going on as the current county board, in yet another one of its crazy moves, had the vote maybe a year ago and I forget the exact situation, but it had to do with the over payments made to some retirees and again I forget what the exact issue was and don’t feel like looking it up, but the current board voted to continue whatever insanity they could keep going, even in 2015 when they had a chance to at least stop a little bit of the bleeding, nope they just want to keep blowing that money right out the door, which in case no one there or at the Domes meeting realizes it, is the exact same type of money that could be used to repair the Domes, fix whatever needs to be fixed in the park system and on and on.

    Move to any of the neighboring counties and get an instant tax break on your property taxes (which you still pay even if renting, just indirectly) and its a substantial cut, about 30% for simply crossing 124th street and going from Tosa to Elm Grove or Brookfield. Now, if you want to live in a high rise luxury condo, well you won’t find those in Brookfield, Mequon or Delafield and the trend over the last 15 or 20 years of people, often retirees wanting to move back to big $$$ urban areas has been a nationwide trend, so that’s not one that MKE county or city can necessarily point to as being because we’ve run such a wonderful city and/or county, its been much the same story in many other cities and neither the city nor county gov’ts created Lake Michigan and our lakefront, another reason to move downtown, but there’s always a tipping point for everything and we’re seeing it happen now as we’ve got issues like the crumbling Domes and how the heck we’re going to pay to fix them when our tax bills (don’t forget the extra half percent sales tax we pay on every purchase here as well) are already far above neighboring counties, which of course goes for where businesses choose to locate their new offices, factory, warehouse, etc.

    For those who want a true “urban life” in this metro area, I suppose MKE county has the monopoly on that deal, but that’s just a small % of everyone, for those who want anything else, it starts becoming so damn costly to live in this county that the neighboring counties sure seem attractive and while we’ll hear all about the Domes, etc all the things that sure seem worthy of spending some money on, other than the very few articles like this one, we sure don’t hear much about the massive amounts of $$$$ being flushed down the toilet daily here in Milwaukee County!

  9. Dennis says:

    Nice hit piece Bruce! You mention Abele attempting to “cap backdrop payments,” which is a complete and utter fabrication. Abele’s plan would have cost taxpayers $20 millikn because the pensions he was going after were protected by a statute of limitations. Please stop lying to your readers in support Chris Abele.

  10. Bruce Murphy says:

    My point here was that Sup. Mayo did everything to prevent a proposal that had the potential to cap the backdrop that Mayo might benefit from. As to the legal argument union rep Dennis Hughes raises, I would refer readers back to this story, you be the judge:

  11. George Wagner says:

    The unions involved in labor negotiations were surprised by the County’s offer of such a generous retirement package. The price the workers paid was a zero wage increase over several years. With inflation running at about 3% annually, this meant a real drop in their income over a few years of about 10%. But the union folks knew this still was a good deal for their members.
    By being unwilling to raise property taxes a little bit to keep up with inflation, Ament and most of the County Board decided to kick the can down the road. Instead of being honest with taxpayers and telling them that a small increase in wages for workers was justified, they took the easy way out.
    We paid for it in the end. It was Ament and his supporters on the County Board who were culpable, but don’t exonerate a good portion of the populace, Republicans, and right-wing pundits for fueling a climate of tax hatred and by pretending you can run a responsible government on a frayed shoestring,.

  12. Dennis says:

    Bruce – I do apologize, I was thinking of the wrong pension scandal. I thought you meant the one where Abele’s plan would have cost taxpayers $20 million and ruin the lives of elderly retirees.

  13. Patty PT says:

    This is all about making decisions with long lasting effects, in this case, very harmful lasting effects. Elected officials are trusted to make big decisions that have big impact. This big decision was a HUGE mistake that we are all still paying for, and will for many many many years to come. These people should be held accountable for their decisions.

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