As for last-minute attacks ads, I enjoyed the one sent out in the form of a big glossy card by Scott Johnson, Republican, in his campaign for re-election as mayor of Saratoga Springs.
His opponent is Brent Wilkes, a private businessman who handles, or used to handle, worker compensation claims for municipalities. Until this year he was president of a company, Perma Inc., that did just that.
Wilkes’ business record is displayed in lurid red on the back of Johnson’s mailer, showing the net assets of the company having plummeted from plus $8 million to minus $21.7 million over the last two years that Wilkes was president, that is, 2009 and 2010, and with $35.2 million in operating losses during that time.
“Wilkes didn’t do what was necessary to reverse these dramatic losses at Perma, Inc.,” the mailer says, under the headline “Brent Wilkes — A Record City Taxpayers Can’t Afford.”
A real scorcher, just a few days before the election, with little chance for response or rebuttal, in the best tradition of attack ads.
I asked Wilkes about it, and he directed me to the company’s annual report, which showed that Johnson’s numbers, though not false, were only part of the picture. The report also shows that Perma has assets of $132 million as against only $40 million in current liabilities, making the company $80 million to the good. The huge shortfall is in liabilities that extend over the next 30 years in the form of various workers’ compensation and other claims. The company is in the red only in the sense that every municipality in New York state is in the red, the difference being that municipalities don’t count long-term liabilities (like health insurance commitments to retirees) but just blithely ignore them.
“Why is he criticizing me for my liability and not mentioning his own $104 million unfunded liability?” he asked rhetorically, referring to Saratoga Springs’ situation.
Because that’s how you run a campaign, I wanted to say.
“It’s a cheap political trick six days before the election,” he protested, and he provided me with an audit of his company done by an outside fi rm, which described Perma’s deficit as owing to state regulatory developments “common to the entire market,” so that “all providers have been impacted in a similar fashion,” and giving credit to Perma for being “the fi rst public entity group self-insured trust to acknowledge these developments and adjust its fi nancial reporting accordingly.”
“Perma will rely on its substantial asset base to meet all ongoing claims, obligations and cash requirements during the execution of the strategic plan,” the audit said.
I am neither accountant nor auditor, so I abstain from render- ing judgment, though it would have been nice if these charges had been made a month ago so everyone would have had time to chew them over. But then, that’s not the way it’s done.
Johnson, by the way, is the mayor who has blocked efforts by a grassroots group to hold a referendum on changing the city’s form of government. A court ruled against him, and rather than concede, he is appealing the ruling.
A GENEROUS VOTE
You could have knocked me over with a feather. The members of the Public Employees Federation voted 27,718 to 11,645 to accept a four-year contract that is only a little different from the fi ve-year contract they rejected a short time ago by a vote of 19,629 to 16,906.
I had it fi gured completely wrong. I fi gured selfi shness would carry the day, as it so often does, and the great majority of members who knew their jobs were safe would willingly throw 3,496 of their union brothers and sisters out into the street in order to preserve the lower health insurance costs guaranteed them under the old contract.
But no such thing. In fact the swing was quite dramatic the other way, and now I must revise my view of human nature.
The majority of PEF voters acted with magnanimity, even in the privacy of their homes where they marked their ballots, knowing that no one was watching. At least no one was watching them individually, though we were all watching them collectively.
There wouldn’t have been any such drama in the fi rst place, of course, if it weren’t for that animal known in New York as the Triborough Amendment, under which benefits provided in a contract remain in place even after the contract reaches the end of its term, so that union members have little incentive to negotiate and certainly no incentive to concede anything.
Why concede something that is legally guaranteed in perpetuity?
In this case it was only to protect the jobs of those unfortunate members who were going to be laid off to achieve the savings the governor demanded. You could achieve the savings by axing 3,496 employees or by forgoing raises and increasing everyone’s health insurance contribution.
The majority of PEF voters swallowed hard and chose the latter. Thus did they accommodate themselves to the realities experienced by so many private workers in this fair land of ours and cover themselves with a certain modest glory.