Bruce Murphy: Will County Pass Another Pension Giveaway?

I’m going to post this without comment for you all to read, digest, and discuss, because it seems like something worth discussing.

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.

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?


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19 thoughts on “Bruce Murphy: Will County Pass Another Pension Giveaway?

  1. WOW. Cowardly osting without commenting about how biased that article is against these innocent retirees? These 200 people invested in the same program as thousands of other retirees. Unfortunately, they took the County’s advice and bought pension credits using deferred compensation or their savings account funds, which was against IRS rules. These retirees asked specifically, “do I need to use cash instead?” The County said, “no.” Now the County Executive is saying attempting to cut pensions based on THE COUNTY’S ADMINISTRATIVE ERROR.

    I’ve never been more sure that this blog is run by Chris Abele after this post and Shaina’s most recent “reporting.”

    Literally no one supports Abele’s plan. When the Board passes the best solution to this problem unanimously, Bruce Murphy, Dave Umhoefer, and now Blogging Blue will be outed as the media outlets that are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Chris Abele and Corporate Democrats, Inc.

    Try actually researching a subject before throwing out the worst piece of journalism you can find to start a discussion. If you actually wanted to have a discussion it should have happened sometime in the last 11 months that this Abele scandal has been happening, not 3 hours before the County Board votes to resolve the issue. You are clearly attempting to affect the vote today, not actually inform your readers. This Abele activism needs to stop if this blog is to be considered a legitimate source of news for people.

    1. Dennis, thanks for your comment. You’re certainly entitled to your opinion of me and this blog, and you’ve certainly not shied away from sharing your opinions.

      To address the point you raised in your comment at 7:51 a.m., I didn’t feel the need to comment because sometimes I post my opinions, and other times I post things I think merit a discussion.

      I really don’t have anything else to add, except to say that I find it ironic that you wrote in a Facebook comment today that you let opinions that differ from yours “slide unless they are attacking other members or retirees,” yet here you are attacking a dues-paying member of AFSCME. The fact that you are in fact a paid employee of AFSCME makes your comment all the more ironic.


      1. Zach, this issue has been going on since last April. You definitely saw my comments on Murphy’s post and I refuse to believe that you posted this innocently as a discussion topic two days after it was published.

        Having followed your blog for awhile now, I truly believe you and some of your associates here (Shaina) have an inappropriate relationship with Chris Abele, who happens to be public enemy #1 for AFSCME members in Wisconsin.

        I appreciate that you are a dues-paying member, but I wish you would stop posting anti-union articles that harm other dues-paying members.

        1. Dennis, I’d love to hear more about your allegation of an inappropriate relationship between myself and Chris Abele….that sounds like an juicy story! Actually, on second thought, I’m not interested in that, because I know it’s an absolute crock of shit.

          Further, I’m not interested in anything else you have to say, to me, because your behavior and comments towards me have shown me that you’re not interested in having a discussion; you’d rather hurl insults, tear me down, and question my loyalty to a union that I’ve been a member of for 15 years – a union that I have continued to serve and support long after Act 10 did away with compulsory union membership for public employees.

          And with that, I’m done with you. Have a great night.

  2. Why do you not feel the need to comment when you post a blog that is supports a position that is counter to the plan that has UNANIMOUS support of the County Board?

  3. Funny that paid AFSCME lobbyist Dennis Hughes is only hack responding to this, Zach. Couldn’t rally the membership, Denny? Thank you for sharing Bruce’s column. Democrats need to start seizing common sense areas of govt policy, it’s our party’s heritage.

    1. Failed Assembly Candidate, Dan Adams- It’s quite a coincidence to see you speak up when Chris Abele is being attacked. It’s almost like you’re paid to defend him! I did rally these retired members to the tune of a 14-2 veto-proof County Board majority. The County Board passed the common sense proposal that fixed this fisco without affecting the pension fund, retirees, or taxpayers. It was the perfect solution.

      Lastly, I am not a paid lobbyist for AFSCME and I do not represent workers in Milwaukee County. I am advocating for this group as a volunteer.

  4. With all due respect, Zach, Dennis Hughes is an AFSCME hack. “Hack” defined by Websters: “working for hire especially with mediocre professional standards.” Seems to fit him to a tee.

    1. The goals of my work (that you know of) were as follows: (1) make sure Dan Adams does not win an Assembly seat and (2) protect $36 million in pension payments despite multiple influential journalists actively working with Chris Abele. (1) Dan Adams finished a distant third place and (2) the County Board voted 14-2 to protect pensions with Deanna Alexander giving a 5-min speech dismantling my opponents like Charlie Sykes and Dan Adams.

      I’m 2 for 2 if you want to start keeping score!

  5. What simple creatures AFSCME members are.

    But let’s not let Dennis victimize himself by way of modesty. He’s got so much more credit to take.

    He’s apparently also helped AFSCME:
    *Lose its’ certification
    *Lose more than 60% of its’ WI membership
    *Lose an April 1st referendum by nearly 80% in a firmly, blue county. (While Sanfelippo laughed his ass off)
    *Turn a preacher’s son with a hs diploma into a presidential candidate on the backs of fellow AFSCME workers.

    And since the midterms came up-
    *Cost Marina the same assembly seat Adams ran for, simply by endorsing her.

    The green M&M’s are lucky to have you, D. :).

    Great seeing you today!

    1. Ben, your “What simple creatures AFSCME members are” comment is absolute horse shit.

      Union membership & support does not make one a “simple creature,” and I’m insulted you’d stoop so low.

      1. Real strong, Zach.

        I give a napkin run down of AFSCME’s last few circles around the bowl and you don’t even have punctuation to add.

        But the charictarization “simple” sends you into surly lifeguard mode?

        You’re a perfect fit for AFSCME.

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