Mr Pension Scandal Wants Your Vote
John Weishan, who supported infamous pension plan that gouged taxpayers, is running for Register of Deeds.
John Weishan is a survivor. He has served as Milwaukee County Supervisor since 2000, having won reelection six times since then, most recently in the April 2020 election.
Weishan is the last remaining county board member who voted for the entire infamous pension package of 2000-2001, which has been a disaster for county taxpayers. By the end of 2016 its total cost had hit $296 million but the huge lump sum payments to retiring employees have continued, costing $19.9 million in 2017 and $20.7 million in 2018 and probably another $20 million or so in 2019, which hasn’t been computed yet. The total cost is likely to surpass $400 million before every eligible employee has retired.
And that’s just the cost of the infamous “back drop”; the plan also provided sweeteners in monthly pension payments that have worsened the financial hit. By the end of 2016, nine employees had gotten backdrop payments of more than $1 million, seven more than $900,000, seven payments of $700,000 to $850,000, 20 payments of $600,000-$699,999 and 69 got $400,000 to $599,999, as Urban Milwaukee reported. In addition they all got a generous monthly pension.
The toll from these obscene payouts, when combined with declining state shared revenue, has made Milwaukee County the disaster area of Wisconsin government, with a badly underfunded transit system, deteriorating parks and a massive long-term deficit. The situation is so bad the county may be forced to sell off parks, the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum has warned.
Taxpayers were so enraged by the pension plan that they forced then-County Executive F. Thomas Ament to resign and recalled seven county supervisors from office, the biggest such revolt by voters in Milwaukee history. So you might think Weishan would lay low and count his blessings he wasn’t removed.
But no, he is hoping you’ve forgotten all about his disgrace, and will support his effort to get a big fat raise, from less than $25,000 as county supervisor to $90,870 as Milwaukee County Register of Deeds.
Weishan accepts no blame for supporting the pension plan and blames it on others, particularly Mercer Consulting, which advised county officials on the pension. The county sued Mercer Consulting and won a $45 million out-of-court settlement, or about one-ninth of what the pension plan will cost taxpayers.
When the settlement was announced Weishan declared that “the untold story is that of the elected officials who were ridiculed in the local media. It is unfortunate that they and their families suffered through the recall process that ensued.” Board members, he added, made decisions based on incorrect information from Mercer. “Supervisors are everyday citizens … [who] don’t necessarily have actuarial experience.”
But you didn’t need to be an actuary to figure out how smelly the deal was. I speak as the reporter who broke the pension scandal and can’t claim to have sophisticated accounting skills. But it wasn’t hard to see how negligent Weishan and other officials were.
For decades, courthouse insiders had seen county government as “a cookie jar for employees,” as former Supervisor Roger Quindel once put it. “This attitude permeates the place. Every time you turn around, they’re trying to get more.”
The county already had the state’s most generous pension. At the time, city retirees could collect up to 70 percent of their final average salary; state retirees maxed out at 65 percent. County retirees, though, could collect 80 percent.
Yet the 2000 pension deal allowed all veteran employees to effectively hike that to an unprecedented 105 percent of their salary. Everyone in the courthouse tracked their own percentages, so board members knew it was an incredibly lucrative benefit.
The Ament administration claimed this was needed to recruit and retain talented employees. But the county didn’t need more employees. It needed fewer. It had been shutting down or losing departments to the State of Wisconsin for years, dropping from about 10,000 to 7,500 employees in the 1990s. Not one official I interviewed offered any example of a talented worker who had left the county.
This was more than enough to make the plan suspicious. But on top of that came the backdrop. Yes, it was a complicated computation. But any board member could have asked a simple question: How much will the officials pushing for this plan personally benefit? The answer in the case of Ament, had he served until 2008 as planned, was a $2.3 million back drop.
Both then-board chair Karen Ordinans and then-finance chair Lynne DeBruin told me the board was provided examples of backdrops, but only for lower-paid employees, DeBruin said. And no one smelled a rat?
Before the plan was passed, DeBruin learned of a county nurse who would get a $275,000 backdrop. According to two board members, DeBruin shared this with Ordinans, who advised DeBruin “leadership is supporting this.” DeBruin nevertheless voted no. But Ordinans and 19 others voted yes.
While it’s certainly true Mercer did a poor job, there’s no evidence any board member ever asked it to estimate the cost of the pension deal. In fact, not one board member I interviewed after the plan was passed even mentioned Mercer. They only mentioned the pressure from Ament. Nor did any board member ask the county audit department to analyze the bill. For that matter, why not ask the finance chair why she was voting no? “It wasn’t even debated on the county floor,” former Supervisor Penny Podell recalled.
Ordinans, as I once reported, might have opposed including elected officials in the pension plan but agreed to do so after then-Sheriff Lev Baldwin threatened to oppose the reelection of Weishan. So by protecting her brother she increased the cost of the already grossly expensive plan.
Beyond the destructive impact on Milwaukee County the pension scandal was a disaster for the Democratic Party. It led directly to the election of Scott Walker as county executive and helped build the momentum for his run for governor and his argument for reductions in public worker compensation. Without the county pension scandal, we might never have seen the passage of Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
So it’s ironic to hear Weishan note he is running as a Democrat for a partisan office, Register of Deeds, and will do a better job than his opponent Israel Ramón of serving the Democratic Party. Specifically, Weishan promises to use the office to combat voter suppression and help those without a driver’s license get the needed paper work to be registered as voters.
I would have thought that making sure all people can vote serves all of us regardless of our party affiliation. As for the idea that Weishan can help the Democratic Party, let’s just say his track record for that, or for safeguarding county finances, comes with an historically large asterisk.
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