The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
Rumors of my mother’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
But not without causing great harm.
She’s not Mark Twain.
Every time someone loads up their guns and goes on a shooting rampage in an office building, a school or a church, national broadcast news anchors like Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News go on television and put on their sad faces and express wonder and confusion over how such a horrible tragedy could occur in this “great” country.
But if you think about it, how could Brian Williams know anything about poor people who are screwed in life by bureaucrats and bullies? He was born in Elmira, New York and went to college at Georgetown and got his first job working for President Jimmy Carter. He got into broadcasting and is now in the top 1% of Americans making $10 million a year, living the “good life,” the American Dream, in New York City. Whoohoo! The top of the world.
He played the game of life well and deserves his rewards. But look at the numbers. In a country of 314 million people, only 23 million watch one of the three network news shows now. A paltry sum compared to the 1970s. Only about 8.5 million viewers catch NBC.
That’s still way more than those who subscribe to the New York Times, which is now down to 1.2 million daily subscribers and 760,000 digital subscribers.
In a state of 4.7 million people in Alabama, the largest newspaper, The Birmingham News, is down to about 90,000 in circulation now since killing the daily newspaper and only printing three days a week. That’s not even 10 percent of market penetration in the Metro area of Birmingham.
My 87-year-old mother is one of those who watch NBC, which is why I bring it up. She has never watched Fox News or listened to Rush Limbaugh or Rick and Bubba on talk radio. She lived in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, all her life, in the same house since 1960. She worked in the same office at Trussville Utilities from 1963 to 1992, and read the Birmingham News every day for more than 50 years — until her eyes got so bad in the past year that she could not read it anymore. She lived long enough to see the daily paper go away, which was a good thing because the damn thing just piled up and cluttered the den.
I was the one who had the pleasure of making the call to cancel the subscribtion. It has been a long time since I thought much of the Birmingham News. I’m also now one of the media experts who does not believe the Newhouse corporate chain Web option is going to work in the long run at al.com, but that’s a story for another day. I doubt if any of their new bloggers have any insight to offer about why people reach the end of their ropes and go on shooting sprees.
But something happened to me recently that gives me some special insight. This I expect will be the final insult I will ever have to suffer on top of all the injuries over the years, just because I grew up poor in an ignorant state. I will be moving on soon.
What happened was this. It’s a cautionary tale.
My family is in the process of moving my mom to a retirement community designed like a cruise ship. Her house is up for sale and we had to clean out all the cabinets, the closets and the chests of drawers to get ready for the move. We easily had way more than enough for a garage sale, since my mom was a child of the Great Depression and had a hard time throwing anything away. I hate to call her a bona fide hoarder. But if you had seen what all came out of the highest kitchen cabinets and the back of the closets and the basement, you would understand what I mean. I’m sure there are many people out there who have had similar experiences with their parents and grandparents.
Everything was going fine until I went to replace the back porch furniture we sold in the garage sale with a smaller set of just two chairs and a smaller table mom could take with her to the retirement village balcony. Since she cannot walk very far anymore and doesn’t know how to surf the Web, I did all the shopping. I went to many stores looking for the best setup for the best price, and found what I was looking for on the Home Depot Website. We deposited some of the money from the garage sale into her bank account and I placed the order online.
The first sign of trouble came when I got an e-mail on Wednesday, June 11, indicating the purchase had been declined by the bank. I called Home Depot and said there must be a mistake, since I knew the money was there. But then I checked her account online.
There I saw the strangest thing. The Alabama Retirement System deposits her money on the first of the month. But this month, they withdrew her June money on the 10th. So I started checking out what had gone wrong.
I called the RSA member services line and got a women named Tracy Stephens on the phone. She informed me that RSA had received digital notification that my mom was dead. This came as news to me, since we had just had breakfast together. She said a letter had been sent out on Monday, June 10, demanding proof that she was alive if she wanted to reinstate her retirement benefits.
Of course I was appalled by this turn of events, and absolutely livid with the tone of the person on the other end of the line. She clearly did not care that a mistake had happened and was not eager to fix the problem. She simply defended the policies of RSA.
I got mom to get dressed and we headed to the bank. After explaining the situation, we got a letter drafted, notarized and faxed to the RSA — one day after they withdrew the money and two days before we received the letter.
Imagine what would have happened to a little old lady living alone. More on that later.
This Tracy Stephens claimed they got the information from Social Security, but of course this turned out to be wrong. The Social Security office in California had no knowledge of this, yet.
I went over Stephens’ head to a supervisor at RSA named Virsy Jones. She said the information came from the Alabama Department of Public Health, “a reliable source of information.” Right.
I called there and went over everybody’s head until I ended up with the head guy, Reginald Strickland, who told me the incorrect information had come from an application form for a death certificate from the Bushelon Funeral Home in Birmingham. Turns out a woman named Margaret Bailey with a similar Social Security number had passed away and the family had given the funeral home the wrong number, an 8 instead of a 3 in one place. The woman who did this was named Annie Bushelon Holt.
After fully investigating what happened in this case, I found out someone at the Department of Public Health should have caught the error, since there was in fact a margin note correcting the Social Security number on the death certificate application form. In addition, there were three pieces of information that should have sent up red flags, if the employees had been doing a diligent job. The last name was different, the date of birth was not the same, and there was a discrepancy in the race of the two Margarets.
But instead of checking it, an incorrect digital file was transmitted to the RSA, Social Security and who knows where else, perhaps even credit reporting agencies and al.com.
We finally received the RSA letter on Friday, and here is some of what it said. Feel free to be appalled. I was.
“An audit of the Alabama Retirement System files indicates that Margaret Wilson may be deceased. Therefore, Mrs. Wilson’s retirement account has been suspended … If (she) is not deceased, please have her submit a notarized statement verifying that she is not…”
During a followup phone call that Friday, June 13, Ms. Jones indicated that the accounting department at RSA was mailing a check to Regions bank to replace the June money that had been withdrawn, perhaps illegally. She said it was RSA’s policy to replace this type of money by check, rather than simply replacing the money electronically or even doing a digital check, which would have resolved the situation immediately and not forced us to continue dealing with this for another two weeks or longer. Ms. Jones also did not seem particularly concerned that a mistake had been made and that the RSA’s policies and actions had caused a family hardship. She kept defending the RSA’s policies and insisting that the Department of Public Health was “a reliable source of information.”
The RSA had authority to deposit money into the account. But it is not clear the agency had any authority to withdraw it. If they had been mailing a check instead of issuing an electronic payment, they would not have had access to the account and would have been required to approach the family about getting a share of the monthly retirement allocation back. But of course the RSA has sovereign immunity from lawsuits, in Alabamaland, so it may in fact be the legal liability of the bank which allowed them to withdraw the money in the first place. We will see. Or perhaps it was simply the fault of the single employee. I wonder if you can sue an individual?
We waited a week to see if the money would appear in the account, but by the next Friday, June 20, the money was still not there. We had deposited more of the garage sale money and moved some money from savings to cover bills from automatic debits and outstanding checks, but things were getting close again and still no RSA money for June.
So I made another round of followup calls and got the banker to try to find out where RSA supposedly sent the check. We waited through the weekend. Still no word.
I made more followup calls on Monday morning, June 23. The banker said he had just found out that the RSA made another mistake, sending a check to a non-existent Post Office box in Birmingham for Regions Bank. He said RSA would have to wait until receiving the check back from the U.S.P.S. and then my mother would have to sign another affidavit to get another check issued, which would have to be mailed and could not be deposited electronically. The only possible reason for this is the RSA wants to draw interest on the money by stalling and using the Post Office when everybody who is anybody knows you can scan a check with an app on your phone these days and it appears in the bank instantaneously.
I called the RSA on Monday and demanded that an electronic check be deposited immediately, but of course this still did not resolve the problem. I had a cousin who sits on the Trussville Utilities Board, from where my mom retired, call the staff in Trussville to contact RSA and see if that complaint would speed up the process. Apparently that did some good.
RSA waived the additional affidavit requirement and re-mailed the check to the correct bank address at the branch my mom uses in Birmingham. The money finally arrived on June 30, the same day the next month’s electronic deposit hit the bank. The issue was resolved, finally, after three weeks of heavily aggressive lobbying.
Now do you wonder why people get shot?
Imagine what would have happened already if this mistake and bureaucratic mishandling had happened to the son of a mother who happened to be a typical undereducated Alabama redneck, one with a fixation on Second Amendment gun rights, who listened to talk radio and watched Fox News.
One day soon this may very well happen, if the system is not fixed. And there will be an armed marauder storming the RSA tower in Montgomery. People will get shot and killed.
Now I know the head of RSA David Bronner values the public perception and image of his beloved financial empire, and you know what they say about the power of the pen verses the power of the sword and all that.
The Wall Street Whiz kid has made some drastic investment mistakes over the past decade or so, like investing heavily in newspapers, which are now dying, and golf courses. Of course the golf boom is long over. The days of a 20 percent return on investment or more are long gone.
Of all people, Bronner should know all booms are bubbles. All bubbles eventually pop. It is one of the known laws of capitalism.
According to a recent report, both the RSA and Mississippi’s Public Employees’ Retirement System are “in serious financial peril,” and “Alabama’s system could run out of assets by 2023.”
The size of Alabama’s unfunded pension liability is 37 times larger than the state’s debt, which was $1.59 billion in 2012. With a gross domestic product of $183 billion in 2012, Alabama’s liability would be a third of the state economy.
“The problem is simple,” according to Mississippi Watchdog.org. “Too many retirees and not enough benefit-paying workers. With more of the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age in the next decade, the problem is going to get worse without serious reform.”
Alabama’s system invests heavily in the state, including a system of golf courses known as the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, real estate including RSA Towers in Mobile and Montgomery and media such as newspapers and broadcasting. While the RSA’s site is filled with references to the golf trail and its real estate holdings, the actual earnings from those assets haven’t performed well.
David Bronner also used RSA funds for a leverage buyout of the airline USAir. Eventually, USAir ended up in bankruptcy and an estimated $300 million of pension fund was lost.
Mercatus Center’s Eileen Norcross, working with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University, produced the report.
“I don’t like it because the pension is a trust for the employees,” Norcross said. “I think when you use state contributions for a secondary purpose, it confuses the primary mission there. When you use tax dollars to attract business to the state, you could argue that’s not a good strategy in of itself. The pension system tends to claim credit for all of these jobs and all of these great outcomes, but they haven’t performed so great in the last few years. This secondary purpose blinds them (the RSA) to their primary purpose and that is to cover the benefits paid out.”
Perhaps Bronner ought to fire a few employees to save money and invest in an employee training program to teach people how to deal with mistakes when they happen. Maybe he should start with Tracy Stephens, who should have checked the information before pushing a button on her computer and withdrawing the money from my mother’s account in the first place. The problem was not only limited to bureaucratic incompetence in this case. It was the not caring that matters most.
The communications department at the RSA could not be reached for comment. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
Perhaps this incident will prove instructive and at least a few people will learn how NOT to treat other people. That is my hope, although I do not have much hope left for this place. People these days only care about themselves, their jobs, and don’t have any respect or sympathy for the plight of others. Many claim to be Christians, but don’t appear to really know what that means. Some people everywhere are incompetent and mean. But it just seems a little worse here than anywhere else I’ve ever seen.
Good luck, y’all. I’ll be out of here very soon. I will be back by from time to time to check in on you all, what my friend Rick Bragg calls “my people.”
Cheers : )
See you out there online and on the trail, dot dot dot….
© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.