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$52,000 for 1-month county job
Windfall could increase if board grants request that would bolster pension check by 25%
Renee Booker's return to Milwaukee County government turned out to be brief, but lucrative.
The 55-year-old Booker started work Dec. 29, hired to the county's top administrative post by County Board Chairman Lee Holloway during Holloway's brief stint as acting county executive.
But Booker punched out for good just one month later on Feb. 3, amid questions about his competence and resistance by county supervisors to confirming the Booker appointment.
Booker collected more than $52,000 for the temporary gig, including enhanced sick leave and vacation payouts.
His windfall included $12,037 in wages for his work as director of the county's Department of Administration, $25,000 in a payout for unused sick leave and $15,509 in vacation pay, according to county records.
He's also petitioning the county Pension Board to allow him to change his pension status, a move that could have far greater value over the long run by bolstering his pension checks by about 25%.
"It sounds like he hit the lottery working here for 30 days," said County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo. He'll ask for consideration of revisions to the county rules on vacation payouts so the amount of vacation pay is prorated based on how many months of a year are worked, Sanfelippo said.
Supervisor Patricia Jursik said the county should challenge Booker's enhanced benefit payouts because he never got the required County Board confirmation for his January job. She blasted Holloway over the hiring, saying it looked like favoritism.
"Booker was hired illegally," Jursik said. She wants a review on whether his boosted sick leave and vacation pay can be overturned based on his lack of County Board confirmation.
In an interview, Booker said Holloway's job offer came as a surprise. He came back to work for the county to help out, not to pad his pension or bolster other county benefits, he said.
"It wasn't my intent to go there for 30 days for a large payout," he said. Booker said his compensation, sick leave and vacation payouts followed county rules.
Booker said he knew Holloway but wasn't a personal friend when he got the job offer.
"We are not buddies," Booker said. "This was not a personal favor."
Holloway, through a County Board spokesman, said he had no knowledge of the financial impact of Booker's latest employment on his sick leave or vacation pay. In January, Holloway said he hired Booker because he thought he was well qualified for the job.
The job was a homecoming of sorts. Booker had put in 26 years with the county earlier in his career, but that stint ended in 2002 when then-County Executive Scott Walker abolished Booker's job. Booker had been demoted earlier after a county audit found $6 million in overspending at the county's Child Welfare Division, which Booker headed.
Booker took a leave of absence as CEO of the North Avenue Community Development Corp. to accept Holloway's offer for a job that paid $120,372 a year, nearly double what he was making when he left the county eight years earlier.
Booker said he has since returned to work for North Avenue Community Development.
Holloway hired Booker on his first full day as acting county executive, which was also the last county workday of 2010. The following day, Dec. 30, was an unpaid furlough day for most county employees, and Dec. 31 was a paid holiday.
By virtue of having worked just one day last year, Booker became eligible for six weeks of paid vacation in 2011 under county rules. He qualified based on having worked more than 20 years for the county. The fact that he worked only a bit more than four weeks in 2011 did not disqualify him from the full six weeks of vacation pay, said Candace Richards, the county's acting personnel director.
The vacation pay was all at his new rate, which came to nearly $58 an hour - almost double the $31.73 an hour Booker had earned when he left the county in 2002 as head of an inmate work and training program at the County Correctional Facility-South in Franklin.
Booker's sick leave payout also nearly doubled because it was based on his new, higher pay rate. He earned the sick time over the course of his earlier 26-year county career at the rate of one day per month. Employees hired before 1994 get paid cash for any unused sick leave when they retire, based on their last wage level.
As for the pension boost he's seeking, Booker said: "I am not asking for anything that any other retiree wouldn't be eligible for."
Booker had retired as of Dec. 1, accepting a 25% discount because he wasn't yet eligible for a full pension. Booker got one pension check for $2,925 before accepting the new county job.
His retirement was then put on hold. Booker is seeking to formally rescind his original retirement so he can retire under the county's "Rule of 75," which would give him the 25% bump. The rule permits veteran workers whose age and job tenure add up to at least 75 to retire with full benefits. Booker's initial bid for the changed retirement status was denied by the county's Employees' Retirement System.
A Feb. 11 letter to Booker from Marian Ninneman, the retirement system's operations manager, said no county ordinance or rule "allows you to re-retire under a different benefit form."
Sanfelippo said Booker shouldn't be permitted to alter his retirement status. Jursik said she'll seek a County Board vote recommending that the Pension Board deny Booker's pension request. The Pension Board, however, is scheduled to review Booker's appeal Wednesday and the County Board doesn't meet until the next week.
If Booker is allowed to change terms of his retirement, it could set off a rush of retirees hoping to undo their retirements in hopes of securing bigger payouts, Supervisor Lynne De Bruin said. She called Booker's enhanced benefit payouts ridiculous and blamed it on a failure to check into his benefit eligibility when he was rehired in December.
Booker left his county job amid moves by county supervisors to force a confirmation vote that Holloway was trying to delay. Critics on the County Board questioned Booker's qualifications for the county administrative services post under Holloway, based on Booker's handling of the child welfare spending problems.
"Renee Booker is not someone I would want to have running a major department, given his past performance," De Bruin said in January. The child welfare overspending under Booker's watch led to the state's canceling of its contract with the county for the program.
De Bruin and others also faulted Holloway for filling major county jobs while serving as acting county executive. Those picks should be left for the new executive, critics said. Holloway also ran for county executive but was eliminated in a February primary election. Chris Abele won the job in the April 5 general election.
Abele said Thursday he would "work closely with the County Board to reform the system that allowed this abuse of taxpayer dollars to occur in the first place."
Holloway defended Booker and expressed disappointment when he quit amid the turmoil over his appointment. Holloway suggested that stress over the confirmation controversy had harmed Booker's health. Booker said that wasn't accurate.
"I had other things going on, heart problems," Booker said. "The one had nothing to do with the other."
Booker said he never would have taken his last county job "had I known that kind of firestorm was going to hit."