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Milwaukee County votes to petition state high court over pensions

By: Eric Heisig//November 21, 2013//

Milwaukee County votes to petition state high court over pensions

By: Eric Heisig//November 21, 2013//

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Milwaukee County’s Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a measure Thursday to petition the state Supreme Court to review a case that could affect county employees’ pensions.

The measure, which passed in a 10-8 vote following a wide-ranging discussion, will advance a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, Local 5001, and occupational therapist Suzanne Stoker, that took issue with a measure to reduce the amount the county will put into pensions.

In a Court of Appeals decision last week, Judge Gary Sherman ruled that the county illegally reduced payouts to those who already were part of the pension system. A measure like that, the court said, could only be done with the approval of the individual employees, and not just union officials. That would not apply to new employees, however, the court wrote.

The county has until Dec. 13 to file a petition for a writ of certiorari, which is why Supervisor Theo Lipscomb said he put the measure on the agenda of the Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee. The committee met earlier Thursday but voted 4-3 to hold off on making a decision.

But Lipscomb tried – and eventually succeeded – in getting the full board to take up the issue, which is expected to save the county millions of dollars a year, during the board’s veto meeting Thursday afternoon.

“This needs to be heard,” Lipscomb said during the Board of Supervisors’ meeting. “One way or another, we need a definitive ruling.”

Still, there was considerable pushback during debate before the board’s vote. With Supervisor John Weishan Jr. – who voted to table the measure at the earlier committee meeting – leading the charge, various supervisors raised concerns about petitioning the high court. Trepidation about the cost of continuing litigation, which is subtracted from the county’s deductible for Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp., was discussed, as were some supervisors’ concerns that the state Supreme Court is a partisan body that would not give the case a fair hearing.

Weishan said the rulings from the appellate court and Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Pocan, who heard the case when it originally was filed, should be enough of an indication that the original lawsuit had merit and that the county was in the wrong.

“Who knows what the outcome would be?” Weishan said at Thursday’s meeting. “This is a much bigger than Milwaukee County and I think you’re playing with fire if you push it to the Supreme Court.”

Other supervisors pointed out that the potential for savings each year should be the driving force, however. Supervisor James Luigi Schmitt said there were “millions of reasons to make sure we go forward here.” Supervisor Anthony Staskunas, who voted in the committee earlier Thursday not to table the measure, agreed, saying this could mean “multi-million dollar hits out of our budget every year that we’ll have to make up,”

“If we don’t win this appeal,” he said, “our budget for 2014 is out of balance already.”

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