Wisconsin Reporter | Tax avenger takes message to small-town WI

Findings from TUA’s pension project on Shawano County, Wisconsin, are featured in this story from the Wisconsin Reporter.

taxavengerBy Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

SHAWANO — Jim Tobin is frustrated, and he’ll tell you so.

“It’s been so difficult getting the information from these lazy … bureaucrats,” Tobin said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Tobin is president of Taxpayers United of America, which organizes and mobilizes taxpayers to defeat tax increases. TUA is based in Chicago, where Tobin lives and works.

Thomas Madsen is Shawano County’s administrative coordinator, and he handles open-records requests.

The information Tobin wants — Shawano County salary data — and his struggles to get it underscore one of  his big battles in Wisconsin — exposing the costs of government employees and bringing transparency to government pension data.

That battle, in turn, is part of Tobin’s war — fight off taxes wherever politicians want to raise them.

Tobin describes himself as a “professional tax-fighter,” throwing down, so to speak, Monday evening at the Shawano school board annual budget meeting.

Tobin owns property and pays property taxes in Shawano.

“I think it’s unfair these taxpayer groups take on hard-working government employees when there’s so much other wasteful government spending,” Madsen said.

Tobin insists he’s just following the money.

“The main reason we were there (Monday) night was to let people know that 80 percent of their taxes goes toward salaries and pensions,” he said. “A system that pays so many millions of dollars to people who do absolutely nothing is unsustainable.”

Fighting for the data

Outside the gym, Tobin distributed lists of the 50 highest paid school district employees and the 30 highest paid municipal government workers .

But what about the county? Tobin would like to know, too.

Madsen told Wisconsin Reporter he’s happy to process the request, as soon as TUA sends a check for $100. Usually the county fulfills requests and then bills for payment, but he said it was “burned by a taxpayer group before, and we’re not going to be burned a second time.” Under state law, the county can require a prepayment of fees.

As of Wednesday, Madsen said, he hasn’t received a check.

But here’s what the city and school district data show:

  • Only four of the 80 employees listed earned less than $37,686, the median household income in Shawano, according to U.S. Census data.
  • Each of the top 50 earners at the Shawano school district took home more than Tobin’s $53,000 TUA salary, as revealed by TUA’s 2011 Form 990, the latest public data available.
  • According to TUA’s estimates, all but five of those 80 government employees will take home more than $1 million in pension payouts after they retire.

Tobin’s numbers, though, are probably inflated — in some cases severely so — because they assume the maximum possible pension payouts under the Wisconsin Retirement System and pad that figure with Social Security benefits.

But, again, Tobin would be happy to use actual retirement system data, if he could get it.

Personal pension information is considered confidential under Wisconsin Statute 40.07, and is “never a public record.”

In Illinois, where pension data is public information, 9,900 government retirees take home more than $100,000 a year in pension payments, according to TUA.

“Why isn’t the information public (in Wisconsin)?” Tobin asked. “ What are the politicians trying to hide?”

Professional Tax-fighter

Thirty-seven years ago, Tobin, a former economics professor at Elmhurst College in Illinois, founded National Taxpayers United of Illinois.

That became TUA in 2011 and, according to its founder, has more than 30,000 current and past members.

He said he worked at the Federal Reserve for nine years.

“While I was still at the Fed, I started the property tax strike in Cook County. I started working evenings spreading the seeds of rebellion,” Tobin said.

He persuaded thousands of people to not pay Cook County property taxes in 1977, which resulted in a massive tax strike that garnered national media attention. The New York Times reported that Tobin led the charge of fed-up taxpayers after property taxes increased for many homeowners 40 percent to 300 percent in one year.

Cook County taxpayers eventually paid their property taxes, but not until bureaucrats rolled back the rate.

Tobin boasts his organization helped defeat 198 referendums on property tax increases and 200 home rule attempts in Illinois.

In 2011, TUA expanded to a national focus. The organization works more now to expose the highest paid government worker’s salaries and pensions and advocate for pension reform, whereas it previously focused on fighting off property tax hikes.

Wisconsin Reporter long has been analyzing the state’s pension system, which has a sterling reputation for being among the best funded and most flexible systems in the country. These descriptors are both true and misleading.

The system is 100 percent funded based on government accounting standards, which economists say doesn’t match economic theory – that future liabilities of promised benefits should reflect the safest rates of return. The reason is that if the market crashes and the pension fund tanks, as it did in 2008, taxpayers will still be on the hook to pay those benefits.

In Wisconsin, the pension system’s supporters say the system is flexible enough to handle those losses. When the market tanks, it takes back the gains older retirees made in the good years. The result is recent retirees earn a full pension, while older retirees live on their pre-inflation rate payouts. It’s like robbing grandpa to pay dad.

Tobin advocates a 401(k) style pension for government employees, in which contributions are guaranteed, but not returns.

“The point I was trying to make (Monday) is, and maybe I didn’t do a good enough job, if they don’t support reforms, they will get hurt,” Tobin said. “Bankruptcies will come here to Wisconsin after they come to Illinois. I think something that helped us is the Detroit fiasco. They’re bankrupt, government retirees are going to get 10 to 20 cents on the dollar. As that kind of thing continues around the country, more and more people will learn we need to shape up.”

Hitting home

On Monday night, Tobin brought the fight to Shawano, population about 9,300.

Tobin said Wisconsin taxpayers will pay “millions for people who do nothing,” referring to the “pensioneers.”

John Granchay, a government retiree and former school board member, confronted Tobin, saying he worked hard for his pension.

“I’m still working,” Tobin answered. “I’m going to have to work until I drop to pay your pensions.”

“What did you do for a living that you earned your pension?” Granchay asked.

“I don’t have a pension,” Tobin said. “Don’t you get it? People in the private sector don’t have pensions anymore.”

One state employee brought Tobin’s Shawano-riverfront house property tax records to the meeting to expose what he called the tax-fighter’s “true” motive, an ax-to-grind with the city.

“Our property taxes here went up from $4,000 to $6,700 in one year. The schools went crazy with tax increases.”

Much like the events leading up to the Chicago tax revolt, his riverfront property was reassessed at a higher value, causing his taxes to jump.

Tobin organizes strikes and demonstrations, distributes fliers opposing all referendums to increase property taxes. He takes on politicians and government employees – whom he calls “bloodsuckers” and “special interests,” respectively.

“They don’t like it when we release the salaries. They don’t want folks to know who’s getting the stolen money,” Tobin said. “They expect us to keep working and working and paying and not complaining. They were upset (Monday) night – ‘Oh, you’re complaining, you’re so negative.’ Well, of course I am. (They’re) robbing us blind.”

The Shawano school board passed the preliminary budget Monday night with an expected tax levy for the 2013-14 school year of $12.93 million, a 1.5 percent increase from the 2012-13 school year.

Teachers and other staff will receive a 2.3 percent pay raise. The district has not yet decided on pay raises for administrators.

“A few years ago, I was up here 10 weeks and thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be retiring soon,” Tobin said. “But there’s just too much to do. I’ll fight taxes at least another five years full-time. After that I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t have a million-dollar pension.”

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