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Monday, November 28, 2011

Question endures: Are Too Many Paying Nothing at all in Taxes?

Are too many paying nothing at all? Issue is getting a hard look.

The Kansas City Star
Posted on Mon, Nov. 28, 2011

It’s a standard line in Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s stump speech.
“We live in a world where only 53 percent of Americans pay federal income tax, 47 percent pay nothing,” the Minnesota congresswoman recently said in Iowa.
Bachmann’s figures are roughly correct: By most estimates, 46 percent of American households had no federal income tax liability this year, either because they didn’t make enough money or their credits, exemptions and deductions exceeded their tax bill. Some filers without an income tax bill even got refund checks from Uncle Sam.
Other Republicans and conservatives have echoed her concerns, suggesting tax reform that could include a required minimum payment from almost everyone.
“The poor need jobs, and they also need to share some of the responsibility,” Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said last July.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, also insists it’s a mistake to allow some taxpayers to pay no federal income levy. “I do think you value what you pay for,” Blunt said. “Whether that’s a copay at the doctor’s office, or actually having a stake in the income tax system.”
But Democrats and some liberal groups contend the GOP’s federal income tax claims are misleading. Even Americans who don’t pay income taxes pay a bucketful of other taxes and fees, they point out.
“All Americans pay taxes,” Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal public interest group, noted recently. “Everyone who works pays federal payroll taxes. Everyone who drives pays federal and state gas taxes. State sales taxes affect everyone who shops, and state and local property taxes affect everyone who owns or rents a home. … Most states have income taxes.”
The argument over the federal tax structure is expected to move to the center of the presidential campaign next year. It’s already part of the debate over the federal deficit, and GOP candidate Herman Cain rose in the polls after proposing major cuts in federal income taxes and a new national sales tax as part of his 9-9-9 proposal.
Republicans want to reform taxes for a variety of reasons, of course — lower tax rates, for example, would spur job creation, they say — but many also think requiring an income tax payment from everyone would make the system more fair.
But some who study the tax code are worried that major federal tax reform could upset the delicate balance among all the taxes Americans pay, potentially making the tax system less fair. That’s particularly true because states and cities also are discussing major changes in the way they collect the money needed to run their branches of government.
Among the states seriously rethinking their tax codes are Missouri and Kansas.
“There are substantial threats at both the federal and state level that, in combination, would really do a number on middle- and low-income families,” said Matthew Gardner of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
The growing segment of taxpayers with no federal income tax liability is the product of many years of changes in federal law aimed at specific groups, particularly the poor, the elderly and young families with children. The expansion of popular programs such as the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit have not only eliminated income tax bills for millions of Americans, but — because the credits are refundable — they’ve actually meant government checks for millions of Americans who pay no taxes to begin with.
And that angers some groups.
“Exempting huge portions of the population from the primary source for the federal government’s discretionary budget effectively disguises the burdens it places on our economy,” said Andrew Moylan of the National Taxpayers Union.
But the credits and exemptions have made the federal tax system progressive: The more you earn, the more you pay, both in actual dollar amounts and as a percentage of your income. The top 1 percent of earners paid 37 percent of all federal income taxes in 2009, studies show.
That picture changes, though, when state and local taxes are added into the mix. In Kansas City, the Census Bureau reports, a family with two wage earners and one child, making $25,000, paid almost 13 percent of their income in state and local taxes in 2009. However, the same size family earning $150,000 paid just 9.6 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the study showed.
Because it has a flat 1 percent earnings tax, a state income tax and relatively high sales taxes, the state and local tax burden in Kansas City is considered regressive — that is, lower earners pay more taxes as a percentage of income.
“Nearly every state and local tax system takes a much greater share of income from middle- and low-income families than from the wealthy,” the Institute on Taxation and Ecomomic Policy concluded in 2009.
As a result, the combined tax burden — federal, state, and local — only slightly tilts in favor of the poor and middle class, Citizens for Tax Justice recently concluded. “The tax system as a whole, including all the types of taxes that people pay, is just barely progressive,” it said.
Even some conservative economists maintain that the tax burden is flatter than some believe.
“Everybody does pay taxes,” said David Stokes of the Missouri-based Show-Me Institute, although he added “it’s a bad thing” that some federal taxpayers escape any income tax liability because it encourages them to support income tax increases for others.
Mayor Sly James’ Municipal Revenue Commission, now examining Kansas City’s tax structure, is expected to take a look at the fairness of the local tax burden.
It isn’t clear whether the argument at the local or federal level will have a dramatic impact on the income-for-sales tax swap now under discussion in Missouri, or the state income tax phase-out proposal widely expected in Kansas next year. Several groups have announced plans to organize opposition to the Missouri ballot measure, while the group proposing the swap has started gathering petition signatures to put the change on the ballot.
But plans for federal tax reform are likely to go forward in the 2012 presidential election year, from such candidates as Bachmann, Cain and others — regardless of the picture at the state and local level.
“To accomplish a fairer, flatter and simpler tax system will take a complete reform of the tax system,” Bachmann is telling her Iowa audiences. “It means abolishing what we currently have and starting over again.”
© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Bad Teachers are Impossible to Fire

by Center for Union Facts on Monday, October 24, 2011 at 10:56am

The Albany Times Union has a must-read report today that demonstrates just how difficult it is to fire a misbehaving educator in New York state. How difficult? Teachers who were late 101 times, downloaded porn on their work computers, and beat students all remained on the job after a costly appeals process. The problem is so bad that many districts don’t even bring cases because of the cost:

according to a state Education Department database obtained by the Times Union through a Freedom of Information request, it appears to be nearly impossible for a school district to fire a tenured public school teacher. The reason is twofold: job protection for unionized teachers is strong and the process for firing bad teachers — called a 3020-a hearing — is so drawn out and costly that most districts can’t afford it. …

Though it has been well-documented that the cases drag on for years and can cost a district hundreds of thousands of dollars — they last an average of 502 days and cost $216,588 — the database shows that 3020-a hearings rarely result in termination. Of the more than 2,000 cases brought in the last five years, just 167 teachers were fired, the vast majority in New York City. Only 38 cases brought by schools districts upstate and on Long Island ended in termination, though a number are still undecided because it takes so long for a case to be completed. Statewide, 593 cases were simply settled and another 164 were withdrawn or consolidated.

Even though the New York City Department of Education employs about half as many teachers as the rest of the districts in the state, it brought twice as many 3020-a cases. The NYCDOE employs 70,000 full-time teachers and brought 1,356 such cases in the last five years, according to the database. On Long Island and in upstate, where there are a combined 132,000 teachers, districts brought just 731 cases.

Emphasis added, because it’s important point out that, over a five year period, only 38 of 132,000 teachers in upstate New York (i.e., teachers outside of New York City) were fired for any reason whatsoever. When people complain about union work rules serving as an impediment to reform, this is the kind of nonsense they’re talking about.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Government Worker Pensions ARE Wall Street


In an editorial posted in January 2011 entitled “Wall Street & Public Sector Unions,” we identified an irony still lost on the occupy movement’s rank and file – Wall Street is financed by the pension funds of unionized government workers. Every year, taxpayer funded government agencies pour hundreds of billions of dollars into Wall Street investment funds.
Occupy Wall Street? Why not “occupy” Wall Street’s union paymasters, the government employee pension funds?
Here’s a summary of the dynamics between Wall Street, unionized government workers, and the taxpayer:
(1) The government workers provide services vital to the taxpayer, and charge the taxpayer, on average, about 40% of their income (middle class worker, all taxes – state, federal, social security, medicare, property, sales) to receive these services.
(2) The government workers receive, in addition to their normal pay, funded by these taxes, pensions that are, on average, five times better than what taxpayers get from social security (the average government pension is $60K per year with an average retirement age of 55, the average social security benefit is $15K per year with an average retirement age of 65).
(3) The government workers tell the taxpayers – don’t worry – you don’t have to pay additional taxes for us to get these generous pensions, because we’ll invest the money on Wall Street, and Wall Street will earn 7.75% per year on these investments.
(4) Wall Street invests the taxpayer’s money, funneled through the government worker pension funds, demanding a return of 7.75%. To achieve this return, they invest in hedge funds and other manipulative, highly speculative investments. This increases the volatility of the markets, crowds out small investors, and drives down returns for small investors.
To fund government worker pensions, what has happened is the government workers have taken the taxpayer’s money, and essentially lent it back to the taxpayers at a rate of 7.75% – at a time when 30 year mortgages are below 4.0%, the 10 year treasury hovers at around 2.0%, and the rate of GDP growth is at or below 3.0%, which is roughly the rate of inflation.
Taxpayers provide the seed money for pension fund investments, these investments are aggressively managed which undermines the individual retirement investments the taxpayers make for themselves, then when the pension funds ultimately fail to meet their 7.75% targets, the taxpayers are assessed to cover the losses. Triple jeopardy.
Every time another public sector union or government pension fund spokesperson claims that taxpayers do not bear the brunt of funding public sector pensions, read between the lines, and this is the rest of the story.
The truth is contagious.
On November 18th a prominent Southern California blogger of indeterminate political leanings (certainly no rock-ribbed conservative), Will Swaim, published an expose of his own entitled “How the revolutionary California labor movement became Wall Street’s biggest gambler.” Here are some excerpts from Swaim’s inimitable prose:
“CalPERS is to Wall Street what a whale is to a Vegas Casino. A high roller. A player. The biggest swinging male appendage in the room. With $235.8 billion in assets, it is the nation’s largest pension fund, and among the biggest investors in the world. And it’s largely on the expected gains in its Wall Street investments that CalPERS has been able to persuade officials in many California cities and counties that they could pay rising pension benefits to their public employees…”
“It wasn’t always this way. For decades after its 1931 founding as a pension program for state workers, CalPERS—then called the State Employees Retirement System (SERS)—made stodgy, sure-thing bond investments. That changed in 1953 when the legislature allowed SERS to invest in real estate. Thirteen years later, there was another loosening of the restraints on the agency’s investments when state voters passed a union-backed proposition allowing CalPERS to invest a quarter of its portfolio in stocks. In 1984, high on the fumes of the Reagan Revolution, labor pushed Prop. 21, allowing CalPERS to invest anything/everything in Wall Street. CalPERS had become a whale…”
“You can begin to see the confluence of forces that would generate a pension problem when you also consider that, with life-expectancy rising and retirement-age falling, California offered public workers more generous pension benefits. In 1932, that benefit was 1.4 percent per year of service; the percentage increased to 1.6 percent under Gov. Warren, and to 2 percent when Gov. Ronald Reagan took over the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. It’s between 2 percent and 3 percent today…”
“CalPERS has a reputation as an activist investor. The organization has insisted on quid pro quos: in exchange for investment cash, it has pushed for caps on executive pay and transparency; has led the way for human rights, environmental and labor standards in emerging markets; and participated in class-action lawsuits against major health insurance companies, including UnitedHealth Group…”
“Leveraging that tradition, the city’s workers could reform their union and its bloated pensions. They could start by demanding that CalPERS invest their pensions in solid/stolid/boring U.S. bonds rather than in the speculative junk that fueled Wall Street’s rapid, unprecedented rise through the 1990s and its post-scriptural crash in 2008. That might—might—mean more modest retirements, of course, but it would certainly end union members’ hypocritical reliance on Wall Street—their affection for gambling when Wall Street inflates their pensions, their hatred of the market when it shapes the contours of their daily work…”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lawmakers Pass Sweeping RI Pension System Overhaul

By DAVID KLEPPER (AP) | Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 7:33 pm

Little Rhode Island is taking aim at one of the nation's biggest public pension problems and the results could have implications for other states grappling with ever-increasing retirement costs.

State lawmakers on Thursday passed sweeping changes to the pension system that covers state employees, teachers and many municipal workers. The proposal will save billions of dollars by suspending promised pension increases, raising retirement ages and creating a new system that combines pensions with 401(k)-style accounts.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee (CHAY'-fee) says he will sign the legislation.

Public-sector unions call the measure a betrayal and vow to sue the state.

Rhode Island needs $7 billion to fully fund its pension fund. Nearly every state is confronting similar problems, caused by escalating pension costs, huge investment losses and recession-induced budget deficits.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Despite jeers and the threat of a lawsuit from public workers, Rhode Island lawmakers on Thursday night approved one of the most far-reaching overhauls to a public pension system in the nation.

The proposal is intended to save billions of dollars in future years by backing away from promised benefits to state and municipal workers in the state-run pension plan. Lawmakers called Thursday's vote one of the most wrenching they've had to cast, though the fight may not be over if unions follow through with promised lawsuits.

"It would certainly be a lot easier to walk away from this reform," said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport. "However, it is clear that doing nothing only puts our retirees and our active members' benefits at greater risk. We owe it to them, as well as to all other taxpayers, to attack this challenge head on."

A final formal vote expected late Thursday will send the measure to Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has indicated he will sign it. Chafee, an independent, is one of the original authors of the proposal.

Public workers said they felt betrayed by the heavily Democratic and traditionally labor friendly General Assembly. Some interrupted Thursday's debate with jeers and catcalls.

"They should be ashamed of themselves," said Dean Brockway, a Cranston firefighter with 28 years of experience. "These were Democrats voting to do this. They're trying to solve a 40-year-old problem in one day. They didn't have to do this."

The proposal would suspend pension increases for retirees for five years and then only if pension investments perform well. The bill also raises retirement ages for many workers and creates a benefit plan that mixes pensions with 401(k)-style accounts. The changes wouldn't apply to municipal pension plans, which are typically the result of collective bargaining.

The landmark legislation could have big implications around the nation. Nearly every state is confronting the same problem, caused by escalating pension costs, huge investment losses and recession-induced budget deficits. The Pew Center on the States released a report earlier this year that found that states face a collective gap of $1.26 trillion between what they've promised public workers and what they have set aside to meet those promises.

Rhode Island needs $7 billion to fully fund the pension fund that covers state workers and many municipal employees _ roughly the same amount as the state's entire annual budget. Under the current system, the state must pour more and more into the pension system annually, from $319 million in 2011 to $765 million in 2015 and $1.3 billion in 2028.

The pension system covers 66,000 active and retired public teachers, state employees, judges and police and firefighters. Their benefits are set by state law and not collective bargaining.

Passage of the bill is a political victory for legislative leaders, Chafee and Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who was the main architect of the legislation. For months, Chafee and Raimondo warned that unless the state reined pension costs, lawmakers would have to raise taxes and slash funds for education and other services.

"Rhode Island has demonstrated to the rest of the country that we are committed to getting our fiscal house in order," Chafee said in a statement issued shortly after the House endorsed the bill.

Leaders of public-sector unions aren't giving up and vow to overturn the legislation in the courts.

"The attorneys are going to make a lot of money," Philip Keefe, president of Local 580, which represents social service, administrative and technical workers. "If this is overturned, it will be you, me and every other taxpayer that is on the hook for billions."

Several lawmakers offered amendments, some of which were designed to soften the bill's changes. None were successful.

The Senate passed the bill 34-2 after a brief debate. Debate in the House went on far longer, as opponents of the bill unsuccessfully offered amendments designed to soften the burden on retirees. Critics warned that the changes would lead to a long and painful court battle.

"What we are about to do is a crime," said Rep. Scott Guthrie, D-Coventry, himself a retired firefighter. "You want this thing to linger around for 10, 15 years? You want to go through 10 years of litigation? You want to spend God knows how much money on legal fees?"

The House passed the bill 57-15.

Several lawmakers said they supported the bill with great reluctance, noting that they were voting to withhold money that retired workers were counting on. Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown, said it was the "most heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching vote" she has cast in 12 years in the General Assembly.

"It may be necessary, but it certainly is not fair," said Rep. John Savage, R-East Providence. "Can we honestly say to our state workers, to those who educate our children, to those who protect us... that this bill is fair? I don't think so."

The initial proposal from Chafee and Raimondo would have suspended automatic annual cost-of-living pension increases for most public retirees for about 19 years. Lawmakers revised the proposal to award increases every five years but only if pension fund investments meet certain financial targets.

The changes in the legislation would not apply to locally run pension funds, many of which are in even worse shape than the state-run system. Chafee said he will introduce legislation in January to give cities and towns greater authority to curb their pension costs.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Editorial: St. George Slays the Dragon of Fractured Government

By the Editorial Board - St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2011 12:10 am

Every year since 1955, one St. Louisan, usually a corporate big shot, has been chosen as "Citizen of the Year." The voting is done by a committee of past winners; they tend to choose people like themselves.

Here's an alternative for 2011: Carmen Wilkerson, the last mayor of the South County municipality of St. George. On Tuesday, thanks to a movement led by Ms. Wilkerson, voters in St. George, population 1,337, decided to disincorporate their town. St. Louis County now has 90 municipalities, not 91.

It's a start.

For decades, studies have shown fractured government to be a major impediment to the growth of the region. The biggest problem is the city-county split, but within St. Louis County itself, the vast proliferation of municipal governments and other taxing agencies has led to wasteful and inefficient government. In some towns, city services are poor to non-existent.

Everybody talks about it, even the big shots. But Carmen Wilkerson, a 53-year-old legal secretary, did something about it.

In 2001, divorced and living in McAllen, Texas, she renewed acquaintances via with her high school sweetheart, Stephen Wilkerson of St. Louis. They were married, and, in 2003, they moved to St. George.

In 2005, Ms. Wilkerson, angry at her city's government, was elected to an aldermanic seat. It would be an interesting experience.

In 2006, the mayor resigned after being arrested on a drug possession charge. In January 2009, after a series of scandals, the city disbanded its nine-member police force and contracted with St. Louis County for police services.

Alas, this caused a major revenue hit. Like many of the county's small municipalities, St. George relied heavily on traffic ticket revenue, much of it from an infamous speed trap on Reavis Barracks Road. City officials began urging St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch to have his officers write more speeding tickets, Ms. Wilkerson said. He refused, she said, saying that monitors showed the typical car on Reavis Barracks was going 31 miles an hour.

Earlier this year, Ms. Wilkerson said, she learned that city officials had been in contact with officials in far-off Charlack, a near-north county municipality famous for government-by-speed trap. The idea was that Charlack would send officers across 10 or 11 county municipalities to run speed traps in St. George, she said.

That was the last straw. In Feburary, Ms. Wilkerson fired off "two pages of ranting" to St. George residents, pointing out the city's problems. "Let's follow the money," she said. "What has St. George done for you?"

As an afterthought, she said, she added that she might run for mayor on a platform of disincorporating the city. The response was overwhelming, she said, so she quietly put together a slate of candidates and went door-to-door before the April municipal elections. They pointed out that low turnout in April elections benefits the status quo; if you want change, you have to vote, they said.

Turnout was three times higher than it had been two years earlier. Ms. Wilkerson's stealth slate won the election and set about keeping the promise to fire themselves.

It takes a 60 percent majority to disincorporate a city. On Tuesday, in a huge turnout, 73 percent of St. George's residents voted yes.

"Tax dollars are pretty scarce these days," she said. "If we want change in the federal government, we have to start here."

$100,600 • $79,558 • $63,671 Lottery jackpots? Nope. Sick day payouts for teachers

BY JESSICA BOCK • > 314-340-8228 | Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2011 12:10 am

In the 43 years Bill Meisch taught in the Rockwood School District, he rarely took a sick day.

Even so, at the start of a new school year, the district would add more sick leave — 10 days in most recent years. Those that went unused would accumulate with no limit, and when Meisch, 66, retired this year, he had accrued 471 days at a value of more than $100,600.

"It was there and I knew it, but I enjoyed where I was working. I was healthy," said Meisch, who taught music. Under district policy, the bulk of his sick pay benefit went to his retirement account. The rest was paid in a lump sum of $35,000.

Meisch's unusually long tenure with Rockwood schools was a major factor in his large payout, although two other teachers had accumulated values of $79,558 and $63,671 for unused sick days. The average takeaway was about $24,000.

In total, Rockwood spent $1.42 million to pay departing administrators and teachers this benefit during the last school year.

Those kinds of expenses are common for school districts across the region, even in recent post-recession years. Francis Howell has spent $447,200 during the last three years on unused sick day payouts, while Fox School District's total comes in at $397,135 for the same period.

Hazelwood spent nearly as much as Rockwood on a similar benefit during the 2009-10 school year — before pulling the plug.

"It's expensive. We couldn't afford it," said Diana Gulotta, a spokeswoman for Hazelwood.

But far more districts are sticking with their sick leave policies. And they're doing so at a time when finances are tight, with districts raising tax rates to make up for lost property tax revenue and stagnant state spending.

Sick day payouts are rare in the private sector, said Jeffrey Keefe, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied public vs. private employee costs for the Economic Policy Institute.

"The nasty part of this whole thing, as far as I'm concerned, is what happens at the end. You've got these odd situations where the employee never uses a sick day and it's the equivalent to winning the lottery," Keefe said. "You use them or lose them is basically the policy of the private sector."


Sick leave policies vary among districts, but paying out teachers and administrators for unused days at retirement and sometimes annually is a common thread, the Post-Dispatch has found.

Fort Zumwalt teachers and administrators get 11 sick days a year with unlimited accumulations. If an employee leaves the district before retirement, they are paid $45 a day for unused sick days. If a teacher or administrator is retiring, the rate goes up to $80 for unused days.

St. Louis Public Schools changed its policy in the 2009-10 school year. Teachers get nine days of paid time off, which they can use as sick days. Teachers are paid for any leftover days in December of the following year. They get half a day's pay for each. Those who had days accrued before the policy are paid at retirement for a maximum of 36 days each at 75 percent of pay.

Mehlville offers its teachers and administrators the option to be reimbursed for unused days as a credit toward health insurance when they retire.

Several education officials say creating incentives for collecting, rather than using, sick days is good for schools.

Most agree that the more days a quality teacher is in his or her classroom, the better the potential for learning, said William Rebore, chair of the educational leadership department at St. Louis University and a former superintendent. In most policies, the daily rate of the buyback is at or below what it would cost the district to pay a substitute for a school day.

"It is a perk," Rebore said. "But the reasoning behind it is that it's advantageous to keep the teachers in the classroom. Certainly, you have to weigh that with the cost."

But that's also assuming a teacher is healthy enough to come to work.

"If you feel bad and you come to work, you're not going to be as good," Rebore said.

It's not just teachers who cash in unused leave days at retirement.

Former Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Jeff Spiegel, who retired this summer after 35 years in the district, walked away with a total of $88,731 for unused vacation and sick leave. The district paid him $39,888 on July 20 for unused sick leave days at a rate of $814 a day, which was based on his final salary.

Spiegel banked a total of 60 days of vacation paid out at the same rate for a total of $48,843 on June 30.

The terms of Spiegel's payoff were set in his negotiated contract. The district's policies for most employees have more limits. Even so, sick pay buybacks for teachers and administrators cost the Ferguson-Florissant district about $506,800 in the last school year.

Missouri law does not require districts to give teachers a certain number of sick or vacation days, and the Missouri School Boards' Association does not offer districts a standard policy on the issue. In Illinois, districts must give teachers a minimum of 10 sick days a year.


But not all districts offer sick day payouts.

Under Parkway School District's policies, for example, sick days are granted only as needed and cannot be accumulated. Teachers do not receive vacation days, and administrators cannot be paid for any unused vacation days when they leave the district or retire.

The need to cut the budget made Hazelwood officials take a look at the cost of unused sick pay buybacks in the district — in the last five years it topped out at nearly $2.4 million in 2006-07. In 2009-10, it cost $1.35 million. After that year, the district discontinued the buybacks at retirement. It had already stopped allowing employees to 'sell back" their unused sick days on a yearly basis in 2008-2009.

But teachers say when they don't use sick days, it helps the district and students.

"The classroom teacher is the one who knows the students. They are very familiar with the individual student, and they know how to meet the needs of that student," said Suzanne Dotta, president of the Rockwood National Education Association. "A substitute comes into that room not knowing those students, and where the buttons are to push that student forward."

In the St. Louis area, substitutes make about $90 a day. Districts pay about $150 a day for long-term assignments, such as covering for a teacher on maternity leave.

Rockwood's policy paid out $123 to $246 for each unused sick day last year to retirees with at least five years in the district. The amount increases if a teacher or administrator has more than 101 or 151 days, and is calculated using a first-year teacher's salary.

Last year, the district cut $5.3 million to balance its 2011-12 budget, partly through staff reductions. The district raised tuition for kindergarten, as well as high school parking fees and admission to sporting events.

Like Hazelwood, budget pressures could force other districts to rethink policies on sick leave buybacks.
In Rockwood, the unused sick leave policy is included in the current teacher's union contract with the district, which expires June 30.

Administrators, like teachers, say they see value in the policy.

The benefit can encourage teachers to retire when they first become eligible, said Kelvin McMillin, Rockwood's assistant superintendent for human resources. The savings from replacing that teacher with one on a lesser salary helps pay for the benefit, he said.

Administrators also say it has contributed to teacher retention. Rockwood's turnover rate is about 5 percent annually, compared to a national average of about 17 percent in recent years.

"We're hiring really good teachers," McMillin said. "And we're keeping them here until they retire."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy St. Louis has 24 hours to pack up, say Slay staff

BY DAVID HUNN • > 314-436-2239 | Posted: Thursday, November 10, 2011 3:25 pm

UPDATED at 5:42 p.m. with comments from occupiers and more specifics on the deadline.

ST. LOUIS • City staff told Occupy St. Louis protesters that, effective at 3 p.m. today, they have 24 hours to move tents and comply with city law.

Protesters said late this afternoon that they were split on what to do tomorrow, but would make group decisions this evening, at their 7 p.m. general assembly.

JJ Medina, 40, from south St. Louis, said he planned on staying, but "would offer no violence" if police arrive tomorrow. "This is still time for negotiation," he said.

Eddie Roth, aide to Mayor Francis Slay and the city's new chief performance officer, said that police and city park officials would enter the park no sooner than 3 p.m. tomorrow, and begin removing any structures still up.

Roth did not want to say exactly when police would move in, if at all. He said the park curfew begins at 10 p.m.

After that point, he said, police will ask protesters to step outside the park boundaries. If they don't leave, they could be arrested.

They could, he said, remain on the sidewalks surrounding the park -- but without tents.

Roth said he did not expect violence. He, and other mayoral aides, have been meeting with protesters for hours each night over the last two days.

The protesters have "made clear that they are not a violent movement," he said. "And they have no intention of engaging in or provoking violence."

The mayor has, so far, treated the protesters gingerly.

But, late last week, he announced in his blog that they'd be asked to leave soon. The protesters responded early this week, vowing to stay put.

Tuesday, the mayor agreed to send staff to meet with protesters. Nothing, however, was immediately solved.

Then, just after 2 p.m. today, maybe a dozen law enforcement officers, parks workers and city officials arrived at Kiener, said Sasha Patino, 41, from St. Louis.

They passed out fliers warning occupiers that, after 3 p.m. tomorrow, the city would "strictly enforce all ordinances and regulations regulating the use of public parks."

Some vowed they would not leave.

"I've been practicing civil disobedience since the 6th," Patino said. "I'm perfectly happy being arrested.

"I've been waiting for almost a month now," he continued, laughing. "I'm slightly disappointed it hasn't happened."
Still, by late Thursday afternoon, a few tents had already been taken down.

Several said they didn't know where else they'd go. Shelters they had called were only accepting women with children.

Others were aiming to return to the Mississippi riverfront homeless encampments, said Roger Wilkes, 41.

"Now most that's left are homeless," Wilkes said. "What's there left to fight for? We're going down to tent city."

Protesters said there was a march -- perhaps the final one -- planned for 10 a.m. tomorrow, from Kiener to Soldier's Memorial, in honor of Veteran's Day.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Democratic unity fractures in St. Louis County

Dooley's controversial proposal, filled with cuts, fuels ongoing interparty feud.

BY PAUL HAMPEL • > 314-727-6234 | Posted: Sunday, November 6, 2011 12:25 am

CLAYTON • Party politics, with its foundation of lockstep voting, private disagreements and routine political hires, is cracking in St. Louis County.

The latest fracture followed County Executive Charlie A. Dooley's presentation Monday to the County Council of his proposed 2012 budget.

For many years, Democratic County Councils have routinely approved budgets presented by Democratic county executives. Before that, it was the Republicans who were in sync.

But with a call for closing almost half of the county's 50 active parks, 175 job cuts and reduced snow plowing, this was no typical budget proposal.

And since Steve Stenger was sworn in as the Democratic councilman from Affton in 2009, this has been no typical County Council.

Stenger — now the council chairman — has publicly opposed Dooley on key issues. Five of the seven council members are Democrats, and most have consistently backed Stenger.

He has raised objections to:

• The departure of former Police Chief Jerry Lee, who was replaced after he publicly questioned Dooley's expenditures.

• A proposed contract for a family member of a longtime Dooley aide.

• Political hires in administrative positions.

• A tax increase that Dooley proposed in August.

Now, Stenger, backed by the council majority, is digging in against Dooley's budget proposal.

"Dooley's plan is to try and force the County Council to take the blame for a tax increase that county government doesn't need,"

Stenger said. "The fact that there is dissension between this council and the county executive is to be expected when the county executive holds parks and jobs hostage against us."

Dooley has held the county's top office since 2003, when he succeeded George R. "Buzz" Westfall after Westfall died. He acknowledged the current strained relationship but attributed it to extreme circumstances.

"I'll be 64 on Dec. 1, and we have never in my lifetime been involved in the economic circumstances we have today," Dooley said. "I think that changes the way people do things."

One longtime observer — and former participant — of county politics said he could not recall a relationship that was this combative between prominent members of the same political party in county government.

"The answer is no; I can tell you that without even thinking about it," said Gene McNary, whose tenure as county executive from 1975 to 1989 marked the last time a Republican held the seat. "When the council was Republican and I was county executive, we knew we were a team on 90 percent of the issues. On the other 10, we settled things privately."

Dooley's senior policy adviser, Mike Jones, said last week that partisan politics as they have existed in the county may be extinct.

County government, he predicted, will include more of the visceral, interparty feuds that have long been a hallmark of politics in the city of St. Louis.

"My observation, based on my 30 years in politics, is that party identification and party loyalty is not what it used to be in the county," said Jones, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon in the 1990s. "And dissension, depending on how it plays out and what its motivation is, may not necessarily be a bad thing."


Last week, the rift in county government widened after Dooley told the council that balancing the budget would require the closure of such popular parks as Lone Elk, George Winter, Greensfelder and Fort Bellefontaine, plus elimination of 135 jobs in the parks department, 40 of them full time.

Dooley said the cuts would save the county about $10 million, enough to balance the budget.

On Tuesday, Dooley's appointed parks director, Lindsey Swanick, delivered a letter to her employees telling them the money problems would go away if the County Council would approve a 2.3-cent property tax increase. Swanick advised her workers how to sign up to speak at a special public budget hearing before the County Council on Nov. 15.

That 2.3-cent figure had a familiar ring, one that did not go unheeded by Stenger.

It was the same tax-rate increase that Dooley and Stenger had sparred over in August, after the county executive told the council he needed a tax hike to give raises to county employees and prevent layoffs.

Stenger, backed by most members of the council, won that battle after he cited statistics that called into question the administration's claims of a budget crisis.

Dooley withdrew the proposal, acknowledging that he had supplied inaccurate financial data to support the plan. He also publicly apologized and promised in the future to keep the council involved on major issues.

"We had a truce, and Charlie broke it," Stenger said last week. "Charlie and his staff went back to the drawing board and developed this ill-conceived plan to hold the parks as hostage against the council unless we supported that 2.3-cent tax increase. And Swanick has been complicit in their plans to get county employees to pressure the council."

Dooley on Friday said the budget was based on grim economic forecasts because of declining property and sales tax revenue, not political maneuvering.

"I made a budget recommendation based on what I felt was the best way for St. Louis County to continue to move forward as a great place to live, work and play," Dooley said.

Swanick said she wrote her letter on her own, without any input from the county executive.

"It was simply a response to requests from parks employees on what they could do about this situation," she said.


Stenger responded to Dooley's proposal by announcing the formation of a special budget committee, the first in memory in county government.

He said the committee will revisit one of his previous public beefs with the county administration — the hiring this year, in spite of a countywide hiring freeze, of at least eight Democratic campaign workers to county jobs.

They include Dooley's former campaign spokeswoman, Katy Jamboretz ($88,000 salary as spokeswoman for the county Economic Council); Mike Temporiti, son of Dooley's campaign treasurer, Democratic powerbroker John Temporiti ($70,000 salary in a job created for him in the Revenue Department); and Sara Howard, former spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis ($88,999 salary as county Assessor Jake Zimmerman's spokeswoman).

"Before we lay off career maintenance men or career park rangers, I will demand that these political hires go first," said Stenger, who is an accountant as well as a lawyer.

He vowed to hold up approval of the budget, even if it meant missing the Dec. 31 deadline. That would cause the council to approve spending on a week-to-week basis while operating under the current budget.

Dooley dismissed Stenger's threat, saying if he thought it was necessary to lay off the recent hires, "I would have done it already."

He added, "Mr. Stenger is just one of seven council members. And they all have their own opinions."

But those opinions may be changing.

The chairman of the new budget committee is Mike O'Mara, a Democrat from Florissant in his 11th year on the council. For years, he had been a stalwart Dooley supporter.

In the wake of last year's defeat of a casino plan in North County, which O'Mara championed and which Dooley killed by withdrawing his support, O'Mara has become a solid Stenger ally.

"This committee is going to dig down on this budget and do everything it can to save these jobs," O'Mara said on Thursday. "And we are not going to quit removing snow. This council is not going to put up with threats like that."

For months, Stenger has been mentioned around county government headquarters in Clayton as a possible candidate for Dooley's job in 2014.

He said last week that he has not made a decision on whether to run and that the prospect of doing so had no bearing on his recent stands.

As for the county executive's future plans, Dooley said last week, "I'm always running, until the day I say different."