CBS 58 News | Wisconsin Pension Double Dippers Persist Through Loopholes

President Jim Tobin and Executive Director Rae Ann McNeilly were interviewed by CBS 58 News for a story about double dipping within the Wisconsin pension system.
cbs58MADISON — A Wisconsin legislative audit shows thousands of state employees are retiring, and getting rehired by their former employer a few months later. This is what many call double dipping, collecting a pension while also collecting a paycheck from the government..
Rae Ann McNeilly, Executive Director of Taxpayers United of America (TUA), says government workers are doing this because they can practically double their income while in their 50s.
“We’ve been taxed to death so these people can live high on the hog,” complains TUA President Jim Tobin.
Pension systems in some states prohibit the practice, but Wisconsin isn’t one of those states.
Employees working for city, county or state government in Wisconsin receive contributions to their pension fund. Up until 2011, nearly 100 percent was paid by the employer — or the taxpayers. As a result of reforms, now many workers must contribute about 50 percent to their pension fund, and the taxpayers foot the other half.
When workers are eligible to retire — often at the age of 55 — they leave their job and begin collecting a monthly pension check for life. But after 30 days they can be rehired — for the same job at the same pay, and it’s all perfectly legal.
The state report said government agencies rehire pension-collecting workers because they have the skills and experience needed for the job.
The audit says most of the rehired employees only worked part-time for less than a year while also collecting a pension, but some stayed on the job — cashing both checks — for years and years.
Some blame the unions for the practice, but Wisconsin Professional Police Association Executive Director Jim Palmer says he agrees that returning to the same job after retirement sounds ridiculous.
“It’s not something we see in a law enforcement setting,” said Palmer.
He says many officers do go back to work part-time for the government after retiring, often at a technical college or smaller agency where salaries are considerably lower.
Palmer says many officers can only afford to take those jobs because they are collecting a pension check in addition to a part-time paycheck.
“If they can hire an officer who is retired and has a wealth of experience, that’s of great benefit to a local municipality,” Palmer noted.
Rep. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said in an email that the latest state budget for 2013-2015 included provisions he suggested to curb double dipping, by cutting off state pension checks to anyone who goes back to work more than 26 hours per week at a government agency.
But Rep. Stroebel acknowledged that a recent state audit showed 7,856 past retirees continue to collect a full-time paycheck and a pension check from the state because they were grandfathered in before the change. He said that number does not include part-time workers, people who had been double dipping prior to January 2005, and people who returned as independent contractors.
Auditors say state agencies paid $1.7 million for goods and services provided by 266 pension-collecting retirees from 2007 to 2012.
Rep. Stroebel refused to discuss the issue on camera, and so did 50 other legislators — both Democrats and Republicans — contacted by CBS 58 about double dipping, though one scheduled an interview that he later canceled.
Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) told us by phone the double dipping controversy had already been hashed out and both parties had reached a compromise, so lawmakers didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“Nobody is working on that issue. The compromise wiped that issue from the table. Nobody is looking to take it any further,” he insisted, a sentiment echoed by others approached for an interview.
The bottom line is there appears to be no political will in Wisconsin to eliminate double dipping altogether.
But Tobin’s TUA group isn’t satisfied with that.
“It’s done in the politicians’ minds, but not in the minds of the taxpayers,” he added. “Much more has to be done. Wisconsin pension liabilities are growing much faster than the ability of taxpayers to pay them.”
Palmer refutes that, and says Wisconsin has a fully funded pension system this is “one of the healthiest in the country.”
The Department of Employee Trust Funds says the state paid out a total of $4.2 billion in pension benefits in 2012, an amount that’s been increasing since 2008 when the total was $3.8 billion.
TUA says the exact cost of double dipping is unknown, because Wisconsin won’t release the amount collected by each individual government retiree — information released in 33 other states.
“Stop hiding the pensions behind these secrecy laws. The taxpayers have a right to see what each person is drawing in a pension,” added McNeilly.
TUA puts together its own estimates of future pension payments for the highest paid state employees based on their publicly-available current government salary.
You can see those estimates at this link:

WLUK-TV FOX 11 | Open government doesn’t apply to Wis. pension recipient payouts

Findings from TUA’s pension project on the state of Wisconsin are featured in this news story from WLUK-TV Fox 11.

MADISON – Wisconsin boasts the best state retirement pension system in the country. State figures show the plan holds more than $90 billion in trust.
But specifics on the amounts paid out to individuals is not something the Wisconsin Retirement System chooses to share.
Some 250,000 school teachers, state workers, and city and county municipal employees pay into the fund. Their employers with taxpayer dollars contribute too. Overall employer contribution last year was 60 percent of the total, since some state employees aren’t required to contribute under Act 10.
Robert Conlin heads up the state’s Department of Employee Trust Funds.
“The system is solid and sound and there’s no need for major changes,” said Conlin, citing a study of the system released in 2012.
The state trust fund paid out roughly $4 billion to pension recipients last year. That information is released by the state. What is not released are the individual names of the pension recipients and just how much each of them received.
“The state won’t give us the pension names and pension amounts. They’re hiding that from the taxpayers,” said Jim Tobin, who heads up the watchdog group Taxpayers United of America.
Tobin calling for more transparent government in states across the country. He says he’s standing up on behalf of the taxpayers.
“And we suspect maybe because the pensions being paid out to the retirees are huge amounts,” added Tobin, speculating on the lack of full disclosure on the pension funds.
Taxpayers United of America routinely posts projected pension payouts for the highest paid public employees on its website and elsewhere. The group plans to release figures soon for Shawano County workers.
The latest release though targets taxpayer funded employees in Brown County.
The name topping the Brown County School Employees list is Green Bay schools superintendent Michelle Langenfeld. She is paid $190,000 a year.
With access only to her salary, Taxpayers United of America calculated her retirement pension at $159,000 a year. Assuming Langenfled receives that payout for 21 years of retirement, the group shows Langenfeld’s total payout of more than $3 million.
Such figures, Tobin says would put an extra toll on state taxpayers.
“No we can’t keep funding this unless taxpayers want to work into their 80s and 90s. I don’t think taxpayers will put up with that,” said Tobin.
But FOX11 Investigates questioned the numbers published by Taxpayers United of America, and found the pension for Langenfeld way off.
TUA’s calculation assumes she worked in Wisconsin for 41 years when in reality it’s been less than 3. She’s not even vested yet. Langenfeld previously worked in Minnesota.
And if Langenfeld were to retire at the end of this school year, based on salary and actual years of employment, we calculate she would receive just $7,000 a year in Wisconsin retirement benefits. Her 21-year payout during retirement would be closer to just $150,000, well short of the $3 million estimate from Taxpayers United of America.
“Those assumptions have to be made because we’re not provided with any personal information,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, executive director for TUA. “It does give a good indication of what the system allows if she did meet all of the criteria for retirement.”
A FOX 11 Fact Check shows the average annuity received by all 178,000 retirees in 2012 was about $24,000. Just 50 retirees received more than $150,000 while more than 47,000 received less than $9,999.
Secretary Conlin says if something doesn’t add up it’s TUA’s agenda.
“I think some of those groups have more of an interest in stirring up perhaps some discord between the public and public employees,” said Conlin.
But if state pension amounts for individual workers were made public there would be no confusion.
Wisconsin however is one of 17 states across the country to keep that information private. That’s what Taxpayers United of America is really trying to change. And in the era of government openness I raised the issue with Conlin.
“When it comes to pensions we don’t know the figures. Why not?” asked reporter Mark Leland.
“The simplest reason is there’s a law that says that personal information in our files are confidential,” explained Conlin.
Conlin says the money in the retirement fund belongs to the retirees and, like anyone’s investment portfolio, shouldn’t be open to public inspection. To do so, the legislature would have to change the law.
Is that something that should be more transparent?
“I think that would probably be a good idea, personally,” said State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield. “Salaries are online, it makes sense to equate that to public pensions. I don’t know why that isn’t out there already.”
Kooyenga is a member of the Assembly Finance Committee and has a background as a certified public accountant. And says the system should have nothing to hide when it comes to the amounts individual retirees receive.
“I don’t know if it’s a cost issue, a privacy issue, who’s for or against it, but I think it’s definitely something we should consider and look into,” said Kooyenga.
Kooyenga does admit with the pension fund 100 percent funded, other issues like cutting taxes and creating jobs remain the legislature’s top priority. But we will continue to raise the question of open government so no one is left in the dark.
Click to read the study of the Wisconsin Retirement System.

Wisconsin Reporter | Report shines light on government employee salary

Findings from TUA’s pension project on Dane County, Wisconsin, are featured in this story from
wisreportOctBy Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Want to increase your salary? Join the Dane County government workforce.
Hundreds of public employees in Madison and throughout Dane County take home more than the average Wisconsin family, raking in six figure salaries and potentially more than a million dollars in future pension payouts.
Vincent Tranchida, the county medical examiner, forensic pathologist and top Dane County government wage earner, made more than $204,429 in 2012.
Eighty-three other Dane County employees each made more than $100,000 last year. Another 1,318 made more than $50,000 last year. And 520 others made more than $40,000.
“Most people think their tax dollars are going to the needy, no, it’s going to the greedy,” said Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America.
Taxpayers United of America compiled the government salary data from open records requests filed in Dane County.
Eleven lawyers representing county agencies earn more than $100,000 a year. Kesti McCredie, a toll booth attendant, made $51,791. Three other toll booth attendants made more than $40,000.
Ryan Sheahan, the county’s tobacco coalition coordinator, made $64,230.
While Tobin’s confrontational, firebrand style may be off-putting to some, he raises a good question.
“Don’t you want to know who is getting and how much they’re getting?” he asked. “That’s a big part of where your money is going.”
Joshua Wescott, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, took home $114,534 in 2012. For comparison, President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made $172,000 in 2009.
Wescott did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter. Parisi, who was in a meeting when Wisconsin Reporter called, made $117,038.
Karin Thurlow, chief of staff for the Dane County Board of Supervisors, made $96,656 last year. Mary Beil, employed by Dane County to lobby the state Legislature for more tax dollars, was paid $91,765.
The average full-time Dane County government employee makes nearly as much as the average family in the county – about $62,000 according to Census data.
Property taxes in the county, meanwhile, have grown $115 during the past dozen years on the average Madison home for the Dane County portion of the tax bill. The proposed 2014 Dane County budget would increase property taxes another $18.39 on the average Madison home.
Wisconsin has some of the highest property tax burdens in the country. A 2011 report from the Tax Foundation found Dane County property taxes ranked 51st in the country at an average of $4,038 per household. That figure, taken from 2005-2009 data, includes city, school district and county property taxes paid.
“This is completely inflammatory and inaccurate,” Charles Hicklin, the county controller, said of the report. Hicklin ranked 23rd in county government pay with a 2012 salary of $123,780.
His beef was not with the salary data; 40 percent — or $190 million — of the county’s $476 million operating budget went to salaries and fringe benefits, he said.
Hicklin raised hackles over the pension payout projections calculated by Taxpayers United of America.
TUA took the data from top 100 salary earners in Dane County government and projected they would take home lifetime pension and Social Security payments between $1.9 million and $3.5 million.
That works out to about $91,000 to $169,000 a year, depending on salary.
To come to those numbers, TUA estimates government employees work 41 years, retire at age 65, live to age 86 and receive Social Security with 4-percent salary increases. A mitigating factor is TUA assumes no annual pension increases from growth in the Wisconsin Retirement System.
All told, Tobin’s pension numbers are exaggerated in most instances. A worker would have to spend the majority of his career in the government sector to reach the payouts Tobin projects.
“They criticize us for making estimates,” he said. “We’d rather just do it from the real data. They won’t give us the real data.”
Wisconsin is one of 17 states without a public pension sunshine law.
“While our pension estimates are a very useful tool, I encourage Madison and all Wisconsin taxpayers to demand the right to review pension payments,” he said.