In 2007, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wanting to feed off of the residual anger regarding Tom Ament's pension scandal, did an investigation into this and found that 357 of the thousands of county workers took advantage of the county's buyback program. They further found that sometimes this allowed the worker to get a bigger pension, retire early and get other benefits, such as free health care.
The county made a referral to the IRS due to concerns that some of the buybacks might have been afoul of the law, which would jeopardize the tax-exempt status of the county's pension fund. The IRS has yet to respond.
In April of this year, Chris Abele, the Mitt Romney of Milwaukee County, decided that it was suddenly an emergency and that he had to take action, with or without legal advice.
So Abele sent out letters to 208 retired and current county employees, informing them that he was going to go after their pensions or delay their retirements. However, he also told them that they were going to have to wait months until he decided exactly what he wanted to do to them, but when he decided whatever it was, they couldn't do a thing about it:
"I'm going to aggressively try to recover whatever I can," Abele said in an interview. He said he sympathizes with workers who might be affected because they followed advice from the county retirement office in how they paid for purchased pension credit for long-ago stints of county employment.It should be noted that the timing of when he made his decisions is about the time he comes out with his 2015 proposed budget. In other words, he is planning to help balance his austerity-driven budget on the backs of the retirees and soon to be retirees. After all, the less money they pay out in pensions, the more that will be left to be pillaged as he continues his agenda of dismantling county government.
Needless to say, the unions were upset and angry about this sudden attack on the retirees, who had left the county after a lifetime of service and with an contract that they were to receive very specific benefits as laid out by the county. AFSCME District Council 48, which represents Milwaukee County employees, issued a scathing statement about Abele's anti-retiree stance:
Boyd McCamish, Executive Director of AFSCME District Council 48, said today that the Union is investigating the possibility of legal action against Milwaukee County and the County Pension Board if the County tries to take back pension benefits previously received by the Union’s members.This stance was backed up by the union's labor lawyer, David Sweet:
McCamish made the announcement after County Executive Chris Abele had authorized the County to try to seize benefits previously paid out because of purported “errors” the County made in calculating pension benefits for former County workers.
McCamish said that the Union’s members relied on the County’s advice and calculations and that the County’s actions appear to be punishment of Union members for the mess that the County’s administrators and advisors created.
“Whenever the County or its managers screw up, the workers get hurt even though they are totally blameless. The Union will not stand by and let its members suffer because of the mistakes made by the County, the Pension Board and their so-called professional advisors,” McCamish said.
The Union already has heard from members who have been told they could completely lose their pension and others who face significant benefit reductions. “This is shocking and terrifying news that could dramatically alter lives. People could lose their homes. And the news comes out of the blue in a vague and threatening letter from the county. It’s unconscionably cold and clueless,” McCamish said.
McCamish said that members of District Council 48 who received a letter from the County threatening to take away pension benefits should immediately contact the Union, which has retained Attorney Mark Sweet to investigate the possibility of a legal action against the County and the Pension Board.
“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. The only time he acts with real vigor is to try to take something away from people who already have very little,” McCamish said.
AFSCME attorney Mark Sweet said the county can't back out of promises it made to employees going back decades. The attempt by the county to recoup pension payments is morally and legally wrong, Sweet said.In what has become the norm for Abele, who prides himself on accountability, he blames the unions for the anxiety, stress and panic that he caused. The panic and anger had nothing to do with Abele's decision to go after the retirees, endangering their ability to support themselves, maintain their homes or afford little things like food and medication. It was obviously all the unions fault:
Abele spokesman Brendan Conway said union comments were creating "an unnecessary panic."Ah, so the people "deserve clear, responsible and transparent answers," but don't expect the county to give those answers until they know how much they need to fill Abele's budget holes, caused by things like Abele setting the courthouse on fire.
"Employees and the public deserve clear, responsible and transparent answers," Conway said. The county's retirement office is working to establish how much retirees have to give back — or how much longer some active workers may have to wait to retire — a process that could take several months.
The unions weren't going to settle for the mush-mouthed inanities that Abele was trying to push on them. They wanted answers.
So on Thursday, some of the retirees who received Abele's threatening letters went to the Milwaukee County Courthouse to meet with Abele to get those answers. However, Abele did not want to meet with them or give them the answers they deserve. Instead, he sent out a PR aide, Rayna Andrews, to give them the round around:
Even though Ms. Andrews had explained that Abele was much too busy to meet with the retirees, they had seen him peeking into the room several times.
It should also be noted that Ms. Andrews also tried to convince the retirees that they needed to resolve their issues on a case by case basis instead of as a group. She did not have an answer for them when they pointed out that they had already tried this.
The group waited for over three hours for Abele to give them a few minutes, but he never showed them even that much courtesy.
At the end of the day, the retirees headed to Bay View, where Abele was supposed to appear at the grand opening of a dog park. Abele decided to bail out of his commitment because he is so averse to being held accountable.
With Abele again dodging the retirees and his responsibilities, the group did what any good union workers would do...they educated the public to what was happening:
It's not only the retirees that are asking for answers from Abele and his staff. County Board Supervisors want answers as well:
Milwaukee County Supervisors David Cullen and Willie Johnson, Jr., have asked the Human Resources Director to appear before the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee on Thursday, May 15 at 9 a.m. to explain the pension/buyback issue.One thing that concerns me that I have not seen anywhere is what would happen to the money that the workers spent on getting their buybacks. No one has even suggested that the county should offer this money back - with interest. That is thievery.
“This is a serious situation and there are many unanswered questions,” said Cullen, co-chairman of the County Board’s Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee. “There is $11 million at stake and the public deserves an explanation. The Committee wants to help taxpayers understand how this situation occurred. ”
Johnson co-chairman of the committee, said: “Inasmuch as it has been reported in the press that $11 million has been paid after the County Board passed a resolution stopping improper pension buy-backs in 2007, I believe there should be an accounting of what happened from the Director of Employee Benefits.”
It is time and beyond for Chris Abele to grow up and start acting like an adult. He needs to take ownership of his screw ups and find ways to resolve them without hurting the taxpayers and the current and past workers.
As Attorney Sweet said, what Abele is attempting to do is illegal and morally wrong. Abele is not able to take back what has been given, especially when it was the county that was in error.
The workers took their deals in good faith. If it was found that 10 or more years later that the deal that the county offered was in violation of their own rules, they simply have to eat the cost. They cannot go back retroactively and take something that they had given out by mistake.
Furthermore, to tell retirees that he was going to take away their savings and reduce their pensions, but he won't say how for months is simply a cruel and callous thing to do. These people had worked their whole lives for the county and to be treated this way is inexcusable.
Abele needs to owe them an apology for his boorish, bullying behavior. Then he owes the taxpayers an apology for his ineptness and his needlessly exposing the county to yet another massive multi-million dollar lawsuit.