Monday, July 30, 2007

Blockbuster Story About Another County Pension Ripoff A Must Read

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Dave Umhoefer has produced a package of stories - - main story here - - that should be reading in every Milwaukee County taxpayer's home, and in law and tax enforcement agencies at the state and federal levels.

Get ready to be outraged.

Umhoefer has documented a weasily and flat-out greedy fleecing of the County's pension system - - on top of the highly-publicized pension scamming that led to the removal of many top elected officials from their jobs a few years ago.

The new abuses Umhoefer revealed could cost an additional $50 million in dubious-to-unjustifiable benefits that - - at best - - skirt the law, but profoundly violate every fiber of the relationship that binds voters and taxpayers to the people entrusted to work for the public sector.

When that relationship has been broken, government fails, because it lacks the necessary trust that guarantees its success and survival.

Another political point: Scott Walker has been County Executive since replacing Tom Ament in 2002 on a reform agenda driven by the first pension scandal.

So why has the money for these special deals for some employees' retirements been allowed to keep flowing in the last five years when Walker was in charge - - subsequent to Ament's demise and the purported restoration of ethics to county pension procedures?

Ament, his staff and the board deserve whatever brickbats are still coming their way - - but Walker can't say he's shown the kind of leadership the public desperately needs in the one area most associated with his election and tenure in office: pension system reform.

Umhoefer's findings center around a group of about 500 county employees who were permitted under a willful tweaking of the rules to expand their already-generous pensions.

They were allowed to claim summer job stints or other hours worked decades earlier, thus adding thousands of dollars to their pension calculations or taxpayer-paid health care benefits upon retirement.

And the eligibility to reclaim, through so-called buybacks, those hours for pensionable credits was frequently obtained at a fraction of a fair cost, according to industry standards.

It's like insider stock trading - - being let in on the purchase of some shares of artificially low-priced stock, knowing that the bargain would inflate the value of the shares of the stock you already owned (and all the shares come with a nice publicly-subsidized purchase price, too).

In any workplace, but especially one supported with public funds in a county of modest wealth that is burdened with staggering social problems, the policy-making decisions and resulting personal windfalls that Umhoefer documented are unconscionable.

Pension systems do not have to be managed or altered this way.

I was Mayor John Norquist's chief of staff in the late 1990's, when city government coincidentally went through a systematic reform of its pension system.

At Norquist's direction, the city attorney, the common council and several city agencies agreed on procedures that were 180 degrees different from the county's pension 'processes.'

The city hired lawyers and actuaries to carefully study various alternatives that would eventually lead to changes in pension benefits, and to the distribution of part of the system's surplus - - but the solvency of the system and the protection of its reserves were always the top priorities.

Insiders didn't sit around and figure out how to scoop up every stray dollar as if they were bystanders at the scene of an over-turned armored car in a traffic accident.

The changes in the city's pension system not only had to pass political and fiscal muster - - they had to be approved by all the interested parties, right down to a costly and cumbersome election-by-postcard in which retirees' votes were gathered, tallied and certified by a circuit court judge.

There was litigation. There were settlements. There were tedious and contentious negotiations within a framework of checks and balances - - but at the county, it turns out there were only to be checks.

Time and time again, getting more money - - regardless of the consequences to the county system and taxpayers' wallets - - was the apparent object and the outcome.

Looking at the history of the county pension mess is like watching a long episode of The Sopranos, where greedy people focus on one thing: grabbing more of other people's money for themselves.

After the pension scandal broke a few years ago, hard-hitting reporting, some of it belated, some of it originating on then-relatively new websites - - along with recall elections - - swept many of the highest-profile greedmeisters out of elected offices.

One senior ex-bureaucrat, Gary Dobbert, was charged with misconduct in public office. The county's top personnel officer, Dobbert was convicted, fined and spent 60 days in jail.

Some officials were shamed or politically-astute enough to waive some of the gaudier extra benefits they couldn't justify accepting.

But some didn't, and left county employment with pensions equal to full-time salaries, years of paid-up health insurance, and in some cases, gold-plated six-figure bonus checks.

And now we know that Dobbert wasn't much more than a scapegoat, and that the grifting was worse than imagined.

Enough is enough.

County government is reducing services because it has a constant shortfall of money. The unsustainable demands of ramped-up pension and related health-care benefits are among the reasons that fees are rising, pools are closing, bus lines are ending, and county government in Milwaukee keeps devolving into a political, fiscal and ethical joke.

There needs to be a complete overturning and undoing of the decisions that led to millions in public dollars awarded to people who do not and did not deserve them.

And there needs to be a detailed, deliberate, documented and sworn investigation of all the chicanery that fleeced county taxpayers and the pension system of millions and millions of dollars.

It's not enough to say that it's all water under the bridge, or money out the door, and that nothing can be done about it.

Dave Umhoefer and the Journal Sentinel have done a great public service. This is investigative reporting at its finest - - the best story in memory - - and a solid investment of the paper's political capital on behalf of the community, too.

Now we need to know that the stories will be clipped, printed-out, underlined and summarized for the next steps: repayments requested of fair-minded recipients, efforts to win refunds through claims and lawsuits from the recalcitrant, and formal inquiries by prosecutors and tax officials to help with a long-overdue systematic review of the entire debacle.

Anything less means that county government in Milwaukee has no credibility, and that the disrespect shown to county taxpayers is unlimited.

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