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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011

Trouble on the Horizon?

Abele, Holloway spar over Milwaukee County transit insurance plan

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In perhaps what is a sign of a contentious budget season to come, both Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Board Chair Lee Holloway are taking credit for an insurance plan change that could save the county up to $2 million a year.

Holloway claims he began working on the administrative switch when he served as acting county executive early this year. Now Abele plans to incorporate it into his proposed 2012 budget.

That isn't sitting well with Holloway, who accused Abele of stealing his idea and stabbing him in the back.

"Legislative plagiarism is not a form of cooperation," Holloway wrote in a memo to Abele last week.

Annual Savings of $2 Million

The change would allow the county to administer the health insurance plan for the workers at Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS).

Holloway spokesman Harold Mester said that the roughly 4,000 transit employees, dependents and retirees would not notice any difference in their insurance plan. But the county would save money by administering the MCTS health insurance contract with UnitedHealthcare.

"By putting [MCTS employees] on the county's contract we're able to service it internally, in house, instead of paying UnitedHealthcare to do transit," Mester told the Shepherd last week, after Holloway announced his plan.

The change would help to offset the $7 million cut in state funding MCTS must absorb this year. Mester said that the change would decrease overall expenditures by $2 million annually; $1.1 million would be saved on transit system operations each year while the remaining $900,000 would be reinvested in retiree health care costs.

Over his career on the county board, Chairman Holloway has developed an expertise in health care and health insurance policy. Mester said the idea came up when Holloway served as acting Milwaukee County executive from Dec. 28, 2010, to Feb. 4, 2011, and he then directed the Division of Employee Benefits to make the change. He said that office is "nearing completion" on its work. Holloway announced the plan via an Aug. 31 press release.

Mester said Holloway would bring a resolution to the board of supervisors if it's determined that the board needs to sign off on the plan. If not, the change can be made administratively.

'Legislative Plagiarism'

How did this dry, inside-baseball bureaucratic shuffle set off a war of words between Holloway and Abele? Because Abele plans to include Holloway's health care plan initiative in his proposed 2012 budget, which will be released at the end of September.

As Abele spokesman Jeff Bentoff explained in an email to the Shepherd, "[Abele] learned in May that the idea had been looked at but wasn't in the process of being implemented. He directed Employee Benefits' staff to work with the transit company to make it happen."

Abele's incorporation of Holloway's idea sparked a sharply worded memo to Abele, which was also sent to supervisors. In it, board veteran Holloway accuses Abele—who is new to government, having won his first election in April—of "legislative plagiarism."

"Earlier this week, I forwarded to you my news release draft on the transit health care piece as a courtesy, only to get stabbed in the back," Holloway's Sept. 2 memo states. "It's not appropriate for your staff to throw me under the bus and take credit for my initiative. My idea must be a really good one if you're trying to horn in on it."

Holloway also added, for good measure, "You will have your time in the spotlight when you present your 2012 budget. It's not necessary for you to co-opt ideas from the county board and present them as your own. I have heard from some supervisors that you also jumped the gun on domestic partnership benefits, even though it was a county board initiative that was under development."

He concluded, "This activity has to stop. If you're truly interested in cooperating with the county board, I expect that you will respect the legislative process and develop your own ideas to tout."

In response to Holloway's memo, Bentoff emailed the Shepherd: "As we've said, both the county executive and Lee Holloway had roles in making this [insurance change] happen. What matters to taxpayers is not who did what, but that this long-overdue change will save them millions of dollars."