Maybe Scott Walker has amnesia. Everyone remembers why he was elected Milwaukee County executive. There was universal outrage over the pension deal and the huge payouts to county employees. Walker vowed to reform the system. As the reporter who first broke the pension story, I’ve watched closely to see what Walker would do to roll […]
Maybe Scott Walker has amnesia.
Everyone remembers why he was elected Milwaukee County executive. There was universal outrage over the pension deal and the huge payouts to county employees. Walker vowed to reform the system.
As the reporter who first broke the pension story, I’ve watched closely to see what Walker would do to roll back the benefits, to lower the hit on taxpayers. I’m still waiting.
Nor, apparently, can Walker think of much he’s done. Now that he’s running for governor, his announcement speech touted his reputation as a reformer but failed to mention one specific action undertaken to change the pension system.
It was not until this February, nearly three years after he was elected, that Walker finally got around to planning a legal suit against the actuaries at Mercer Human Resources Consulting for the advice they gave officials who passed the pension plan.
Compounding this delay, Walker ignored the objections of some and continued using Mercer as a fiscal adviser. This leaves the county in the preposterous position of arguing that an expert it keeps rehiring is guilty of flagrant malpractice.
It’s a black comedy all right, but the joke is on taxpayers. Mercer is a big company with deep pockets and was the best bet for a settlement to recoup some of the countless millions lost on the pension deal. Now the chances look dismal.
Were Walker a Democrat, talk radio hosts Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling would be heaping abuse on the county executive for his ineptness. But their tireless promotion helped make Walker famous, so they must cover up his faults or risk looking foolish themselves.
From the time he was elected, Walker has been remarkably uninterested in reforming the pension system.
In 2002, his campaign promised he would “require, to the extent legally possible,” that all non-union employees under his control sign a waiver of the pension sweeteners. In fact, some 80 employees did not sign.
Walker hired outside counsel, attorney Charles Stevens, to advise the county on its legal options and to draft the waiver forms. Stevens put in a grand total of 25 hours on this extraordinarily complex issue, suggesting that the matter was not greatly important to Walker.
Walker proceeded to promote administrators like Terry Kocourek, who was a poster boy for the pension scandal. Kocourek was on track to earn a $1.1 million backdrop payment if he worked until age 60, yet Walker defended his reliance on Kocourek. Walker said his pledge to slash the benefits for non-union employees “was only made in response to the CRG,” Citizens for Responsible Government. So much for campaign promises.
After a Journal Sentinel story I wrote revealed the potential payouts going to administrators, Walker suddenly changed course, and Kocourek quietly resigned.
But it gets worse. Last July, legal counsel hired by the Walker administration advised officials to negotiate a cost-saving ceiling in the number of years the clock could run for a backdrop payment and a reduction in the interest earned. Walker was strangely quiet about this.
By October, a frustrated Roger Quindel, who runs the County Board’s personnel committee, went public with the issue in an attempt to force Walker to take action.
“He was ignoring the advice of his own legal experts,” says Quindel.
While Quindel pushed to include these issues in negotiations with employee unions, Walker has offered belated support at best. “We’ve been flabbergasted that the Walker administration hasn’t been interested in protecting the long-term interests of the county,” says supervisor Lynne DeBruin.
But it gets still worse. Walker has been reluctant to pursue legal action against the Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren law firm for advice it gave county officials on the pension plan. The head of the Reinhart firm, it turns out, is state Republican Party chairman Rick Graber, who has provided major campaign dollars to Walker.
Walker repeatedly criticized the County Board for failing to get an independent audit of the benefits they passed but has never had such an analysis done. This has left county negotiators in the position of asking unions for givebacks without knowing which benefits have the highest long-term cost.
Walker has all but ignored a reform commission’s recommendation that the county create a fiscal bureau, which has been very successful on the state level. As a result, there is still no independent analysis of any budget proposals.
Walker’s big reform has been the property tax freeze, which will be the key issue in his run for governor. But freezing taxes for a few years is like patching the curb when the entire road is washed out. The backdrop will cost the county some $54 million in 2004 alone, and the costs will keep coming in the decades ahead.
Was Walker an improvement on his disgraced predecessor, Tom Ament? Of course. But he hasn’t targeted the long-term costs of the pension plan because he won’t be county executive 10 years from now. His priority has been short-term savings that will make him look good when he runs for governor.
That’s a fine strategy for a statewide candidate, but it’s sheer disaster for local taxpayers. M