Troubles at the Police Union

Longtime Milwaukee Police Union President Bradley DeBraska could be criticized for many things, but he was a very smart, proactive leader. His successor, John Balcerzak , is a turning out to be a disaster. Odds are the union membership will replace him — and soon. DeBraska was tough. Under his leadership, the union took potshots at every police chief and stood up for even the most questionable officer. But if his policies often seemed outrageous, DeBraska was an articulate advocate when dealing with the press and a skilled lobbyist who often got his way in Madison. He was also smart…

Longtime Milwaukee Police Union President Bradley DeBraska could be criticized for many things, but he was a very smart, proactive leader. His successor, John Balcerzak , is a turning out to be a disaster. Odds are the union membership will replace him — and soon.


DeBraska was tough. Under his leadership, the union took potshots at every police chief and stood up for even the most questionable officer. But if his policies often seemed outrageous, DeBraska was an articulate advocate when dealing with the press and a skilled lobbyist who often got his way in Madison. He was also smart about finding ways to please his entire membership, both the old guard and younger officers.

Balcerzak is a veteran police officer who was doubtless elected because of heavy backing from the mostly white old guard, but he has done little to let the younger and minority membership know he cares. Case in point: Black officer Alfonso Glover , who was charged with first-degree homicide for shooting an unarmed man, called Balcerzak to ask for support and was told the union couldn’t help him. This was the same union that supported the white officers who allegedly beat Frank Jude Jr. A despondent Glover committed suicide.

This may have been the last straw for union Vice President Sebastian Raclaw, who recently resigned, citing his discomfort with Balcerzak’s leadership style. Raclaw is white, but he’s a younger officer, notes Lenard Wells, a retired police officer. “He was closer to the African-American officers than Balcerzak.”

Wells ended up having his own problems with Balcerzak. As state Parole Commission chairman, Wells was left in an impossible situation: ruling on whether two men convicted in the 1975 slaying of a police officer should be paroled. Wells never would have been put in this position under DeBraska (Wells’ former partner as a beat cop many years ago). DeBraska was known for being proactive about any cop killers coming up for parole: He had a tickler file to remind him of the dates and would make sure that members of a slain officer’s family appeared before the commission. Inevitably, the parole would be denied.

Balcerzak, by contrast, did no work ahead of time. By the time the issue came before Wells, he was faced with two inmates who were eligible for parole with no mitigating reasons to vote against it. His feelings as a longtime police officer were in conflict with his responsibility as a governor-appointed commission member to rule dispassionately. Wells ultimately resigned from the commission rather than face more such conflicts.

In this month’s issue of Milwaukee Magazine, Kurt Chandler ticks off other reasons why Balcerzak is a weak union president. Officers in at least two district stations have signed petitions asking for Balcerzak’s recall. Balcerzak is up for re-election this fall, and it seems quite likely that he’ll be defeated. If union members are smart, they’ll elect someone who is more savvy politically and more representative of all officers.


Why a Separate Parks District Might Not Work

Politically speaking, Scott Walker’s promotion of a separate parks district is a no-brainer. There is a group of well-to-do people in the county (and some beyond it) who love the parks. Some are liberals. They don’t care as much about county functions like the buses (which they don’t use) or administering food stamps. They care greatly about the parks and will remember Walker when it comes time for campaign donations, if he commits to their cause.

But will a separate district solve the problem of underfunded, deteriorating parks? Maybe, but the arguments in favor of it are weak.

The proposal would freeze the parks department at its current level (tax levy of about $18.4 million) and place it under a separate elected board. This would stop the long run of declines in funding for the parks but wouldn’t increase the funding. The new parks board would only be allowed to raise taxes in line with the state-imposed limit for the county. In essence, this would freeze into place an inadequately funded parks department.

But proponents say private donors are more likely to donate to the parks if they are separated from the much-vilified county. Actually, some contributions have already been made on a neighborhood basis from residents near a particular park. Will there be more donations for a separate district? Probably, but by how much?

Walker has suggested that the parks district could be privatized, eliminating the county workers with big benefits. But it’s the county workers with the least seniority who will lose their jobs if the parks are privatized. These are the workers (including anyone hired after 1994) who don’t have lifetime health insurance and who did not get the 25% multiplier in pension benefits (which in turn made the backdrop so lucrative). Private workers might still be a cheaper hire than these employees, but not dramatically so.

Back when Walker was doing his road show about county bankruptcy, he suggested saving money on benefits by having state government take over certain county functions. But Walker had crunched no numbers and provided no evidence that this would save money. Once again, the impact would have been on the lowest-seniority county employees with the lightest benefits.

Given the county’s problems, any solution should be considered, no matter how radical. And a separate district is not as radical as it sounds: For decades, Milwaukee’s parks were overseen by a Parks Commission that gradually lost power after the 1960s and was disbanded in 1981. The commission was run by citizen appointees who concerned themselves with the overall good of the entire county’s parks, as opposed to county supervisors who tend to worry just about parks in their electoral district. This little discussed difference might be a more interesting reason to embrace a parks district.

But clearly, the main justification is that privatization will save money. If so, that should be easy to prove with a formal cost estimate of the savings. Until that’s done, there’s little reason to back the idea.

Misinformation on County Pensions

The Journal Sentinel is often a paper at odds with itself, with editorials that tend to be liberal fighting with headlines and news packaging that’s clearly conservative. The latter is far more powerful since the placement of front-page stories often drives the coverage on radio and TV. The editorials, by contrast, are read by an ever declining group of politically interested readers and have far less impact.

Still, I can’t help pointing out a recent editorial that misses the boat on the county pension. Entitled “The full view on retirees,” it says the average backdrop collected by 898 retirees was $131,000 but points out that those retirees “agreed to take reduced annual pensions in exchange for the backdrop.”

That’s incredibly misleading. Those retirees hired before 1982 who worked through spring 2004 were able to get a pension equal to 100% of their salary for life. Or they could choose to collect a mere 80% of their salary, still a higher percentage than any government employee in the state can earn, and get a fat backdrop on top of that.

Take a look at the top 50 backdrops collected by county employees, documented by this magazine. The top employee is getting about $44,000 in annual pension payments, in addition to the $684,000 backdrop collected. The 50th highest employee is getting a mere $28,500-a-year pension in addition to a backdrop of just under $342,000.

There’s no question that the pension for average county employees is not that extravagant. But the pension plan sweetener overseen by Tom Ament was not about the average employee — it was designed to reward the old-timers with the most seniority. It did that all too well, and we are still paying the price.

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