Politics & Government
1:00 am
Thu May 15, 2014

Milwaukee County Retirees Watch for Action on Pension Cuts

A County Board committee on Thursday will discuss the possibility of cutting pension payments for some retirees.

A County Board committee will meet Thursday to discuss possible losses in pension payments for some retirees.
A County Board committee will meet Thursday to discuss possible losses in pension payments for some retirees.

About 200 former Milwaukee County employees have received letters in the mail.

They inform the retirees there’s a problem with the pension buyback option they exercised years ago and they may lose benefits, as a result.

The Milwaukee County Retirement Division sent the letters over the last couple weeks.

One person who received the correspondence is Kelly Swedbergh. She put in 28 years for the county and retired from her job as sheriff’s deputy in 2009. Swedbergh says she was shocked when she opened her letter.

“It basically said that my pension may be in jeopardy. I didn’t know what to do. I called the phone number on the letter and of course nobody answered. I sat here and simmered for a day or two and had no answers on anything,” Swedbergh says.

About a decade ago, Swedbergh participated in the county’s pension buyback program. It allowed workers who had performed seasonal or part time jobs - jobs that did not offer pension benefits, to purchase extra pension time. She cashed in on time she had worked as a county lifeguard and retired early, at age 47.  Some who used the program purchased free health care in their retirement or larger pension payments.

The county learned years ago that it may have been used an illegal reimbursement method and it ended the program. However, the program continued operating, awarding retirees million of dollars. Now leaders are deciding how to respond. 

Swedbergh is one of many people who’ve been inundating the County Board office with phone calls, trying to get answers. She plans to attend Thursday's meeting of the Board’s Finance Committee, where the county’s human resources director is scheduled to brief members.

Committee Co-chair, Supervisor David Cullen says the county ended the pension buyback program in 2007. The board called on the retirement division to correct errors, in case anybody got benefits they shouldn’t have. Cullen says he’s stunned by the recent discovery, that the county continued issuing the benefits.

“I hate to point fingers at people, but it seems to me that they didn’t follow the law, they didn’t follow county ordinance that was duly adopted and signed by the county executive and didn’t do it for seven years,” Cullen says.

Another person caught off guard is County Executive Chris Abele. He says he only found out about the problem a few weeks ago and felt people should be notified immediately.

“As we said in the letter, we’re going to find out and dig in and analyze as fast as we can, but I thought that everybody who could be affected deserved to know right away, as soon as I knew,” Abele says.

Abele estimates the county may need to recoup $12 million in pension overpayments from people who won larger checks from the program. He says it will take a few months to pour through records, trying to determine each retiree’s overpayment and remedy.

Retiree Kelly Swedbergh says she’s afraid that ultimately, she’ll have to go back to work for the county, in order to remedy the situation.

“My biggest fear is if I have to go back to work, where I would go or what I would do. As a deputy sheriff, I had good pay, but I can’t even go back to being a deputy sheriff now because I’m not even state certified as a law enforcement officer. After one year, your certification runs out,” Swedbergh says.