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The $7.25 Million Dollar Man 

Fair Game

Published March 18, 2009 at 8:54 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Plenty of challenges came up at the presidential health-care forum on Tuesday at the University of Vermont’s Davis Center. But here’s an outrage that didn’t make the agenda: Papers filed with state regulators show that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont’s outgoing top exec recently walked away with a golden parachute valued at more than $6.3 million.

In all, William R. Milnes Jr., who retired at the end of 2008, is being compensated to the tune of $7.25 million in salary, bonuses and retirement cash.

This sum is all the more staggering because lawmakers and the guv are wrangling over how to nickel and dime the poor, seniors and others on public health-care programs in order to keep thousands from falling off the insurance rolls.

The heart-stopping figures are in a March 2 report filed by BCBS, and its HMO subsidiary The Vermont Health Plan, with the state Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration.

Milnes drew a salary as both president of TVHP, and as president and chief executive officer of BCBS. He also received hefty annual bonuses from each job. Here’s how Milne’s compensation broke down last year:

Vermont Health Plan (2008)

Salary: $197,654

Bonus: $195,070

All other compensation: $2,831,483

Total: $3,224,207

BCBS of Vermont (2008)

Salary: $247,068

Bonus: $243,838

All other compensation: $3,539,353

Total: $4,030,258

Grand total: $7,254,465

This puts a whole new spin on moonlighting in Vermont. Don’t you wish your two jobs paid this much?

It gets worse — or better, depending on your point of view. Before coming to Vermont roughly a decade ago, Milnes was a 20-year vet in the BCBS system. He worked for a BCBS affiliate in St. Louis and then Anthem, a for-profit BCBS system based in Ohio.

So his previous BCBS employers were responsible for funding part of his retirement, and we just had to pick up the last 10 years, right? Wrong. BCBS of Vermont is on the hook to pay the whole amount.

Milnes’ retirement payout plan was known when he was hired, and BCBS of Vermont set aside money each year so it didn’t have to cough up the cash all at once, said Kevin Goddard, vice president of external affairs.

Goddard said Milnes’ retirement package and bonuses need to be considered “in context.”

What context is that?

In today’s economic climate, “the most controversial aspect of executive compensation is in the context of mismanaged companies,” said Goddard. “That is not the context here.”

Ditto for BCBS bonuses. Top company execs receive salaries that are below the national norm and earn end-of-year bonuses if they meet, or exceed, specific targets, Goddard noted.

In 2008, nine top execs in Vermont earned a mere $770,000 in bonuses, based on salaries totaling $1.25 million. Chump change.

BCBS of Vermont was on the verge of collapse when Milnes was hired, Goddard said. Now it has healthy cash reserves and dominates the Vermont market, insuring about 160,000 people directly through BCBS and TVHP, and another 40,000 indirectly as plan administrators.

Milnes’ replacement is Don George, who has been with BCBS of Vermont since 1993. His retirement plan isn’t as generous as Milnes’, and won’t be, either. Same goes for other top company execs.

“Our company is in a different position now,” said Goddard.

Yeah, so are most of us out here in the real world.


Penny PinchingLegislators are back at work after a two-week break designed to save the public roughly $250,000.

Money is on everyone’s mind.

Of 180 Vermont lawmakers, 31 Republicans and 10 Democrats have either taken a 5 percent pay cut, refused a cost-of-living increase, or both. Their combined sacrifice will save taxpayers a whopping $13,799, according to the Department of Finance and Management.

That figure is quickly gobbled up, though, when you add back what lawmakers have been reimbursed for meals, travel and lodging since the first of the year.

Lawmakers collected more than $750,000 in expenses as of their February 26 paycheck, according to state records.

I know: They’re underpaid, overworked and only get compensated during the session, when in fact they conduct constituent work year-round.

And it’s not like they’re the guv, with a full-time driver and year-round meals allowance. Right?


Love & Marriage — Same-sex marriage is the hot topic this week in Montpelier. It’s one of the Democratic leadership’s seven legislative priorities — not to be confused with the seven deadly sins.

The other six priorities of House Speaker Shap Smith and President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin are: economic development and job creation; a $125 million bond to fix roads and bridges; boosting renewable-energy production; ensuring Vermont Yankee’s owners fund the plant’s decommissioning; shoring up the state’s unemployment fund without burdening employers; and fixing campaign-finance laws and allowing same-day voter registration. All that in eight weeks? Ambitious bunch.

Same-sex marriage — last on their priority list — is getting the most media coverage. Surprised? Me, neither.

Opponents believe the legislature should only focus on ways to improve the state’s economy, not waste its time on silly notions such as civil rights. Or, things that will piss off God or Gov. Jim Douglas — although not necessarily in that order.

Supporters believe same-sex marriage will boost tourism. Other businesses see promise, too. For them, it’s not just about dollars; it’s about sense.

“Less quantifiable but just as beneficial is the impact on employee morale and productivity that comes with equal treatment under the law,” said Will Patten, executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

Tom Torti, executive director of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, has heard all the naysayer arguments before. He was personnel commissioner under Gov. Howard Dean in the early 1990s when the state extended benefits to domestic partners.

“There was a belief this would bankrupt the state, that it was a horrible message to send, along with the rest of the hysteric mythology,” said Torti. None of it proved true.

Fast forward to today: The LCRCC’s executive committee had no problem supporting same-sex marriage. Today’s workplaces are far more tolerant than in years past, and only growing more so as companies honor cultural plurality, said Torti.

Businesses that choose not to locate in Vermont because of same-sex marriage, or move out, Torti adds, “are probably companies that would not survive long in the state anyway.”

Amen to that.


Wright or Wrong? — The Great Contois Cop Controversy continued this week, with Democrats questioning the validity of votes taken last Thursday after police were called to a Burlington City Council meeting on the chance it might be necessary to remove councilors from the room.

City Dems are demanding Republican Council President Kurt Wright (Ward 4) apologize to residents for wasting police resources. Don’t hold your breath.

For the full Sturm und Drang, check out our staff blog, “Blurt,” where the public and councilors have been mixing it up in the comments. It’s entertaining. There’s even video.

The evening’s highlight was about five minutes of testy exchanges that two Democratic city councilorsDavid Berezniak (Ward 2) and Ed Adrian (Ward 1) — had with Wright.

Councilors Berezniak and Adrian made repeated requests for “points of order” and “points of information” that angered Wright and clearly frustrated other councilors. Dems were attempting to delay, or thwart, passage of an ordinance change to raise the maximum height allowance of some downtown buildings to 127 feet — an increase of 21 feet.

As tempers flared, Wright called for a five-minute recess to cool things down. It turns out he also called the police.

Officers stayed in City Hall for about an hour while councilors debated the zoning change. In a 10-3 vote, the council adopted a “compromise” measure to raise the maximum building height to 115 feet. A public hearing on the measure will be held Monday.

Adrian said Wright was “manipulating the police to intimidate city councilors from speaking and asserting their parliamentary rights.”

In his incident report, Lt. Emmett Helrich confirmed that Wright called police because councilors were being “disruptive” and “he might be compelled, as a point of order, to have them removed from Contois.”

Berezniak has asked city attorney Ken Schatz to determine if Wright’s actions nullify the council’s votes. Schatz is expected to issue an opinion this week.

Wright continues to claim no wrong.

“Ed or any other councilor would not have been removed for ‘parliamentary maneuvers,’ but if they had insisted on continuing to disrupt the meeting so that we couldn’t carry on our business, then possibly,” said Wright.

What’s next? Tase councilors who fail to second a motion?


Spring Runoff — The current Burlington City Council will be disbanded at the end of the month, and five councilors are retiring.

The new council will not only have five new faces, but could be under Democratic control for the first time since the early 1980s. The determining factor is the outcome of Tuesday’s Ward 7 runoff between Democrat Eli Lesser-Goldsmith and Republican Vincent Dober Sr. Lesser-Goldsmith topped Dober by just six votes on Town Meeting Day.

“I got the most votes as a Democrat in the most conservative ward in Burlington,” said Lesser-Goldsmith. “It shows that people are looking for what I’m offering.”

Dober may benefit, however, from what many view as the Dems’ poor sportsmanship during Thursday’s council smackdown.


Blessed Are the Horse Loggers— The Vermont Supreme Court handed a major victory to activists and horse loggers Michael Colby and Boots Wardinski last Friday.

In 2006, while the U.S. director of National Intelligence was delivering the commencement address at St. Johnsbury Academy, his son’s school, Colby and Wardinski repeatedly interrupted John Negroponte. The pair were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

They fought back with the help of attorney David Sleigh, who took the case pro bono.

The high court said the state didn’t prove the men had caused “a substantial disruption of a lawful assembly.” They should try harder next time, eh?

And without a “substantial disruption,” the justices said, “we would be punishing them for speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

Someone should give Kurt Wright a copy of this ruling.

“I think it’s a really great precedent and sends a message to the hinterland police forces,” Colby said.

You know, make prosecutors and local police think twice before they get all medieval on activists’ asses.

The best part? The state has to refund Colby $130 — a fine he paid to fight for his right to “free” speech.


Dueling DemsState Democrats meet this weekend in Randolph to choose a new party chair. At the moment, interim chairperson Judy Bevans is unopposed. Rockingham businessman Paul Millman dropped out of the running this week.

“I have learned from Barack Obama what ‘no drama’ means from a party chair position,” Bevans said. “I see my part as helping to ensure everything that goes into electing Democrats works smoothly.”

Along with a new chair, the party is likely to name a new executive director by month’s end.

Hey, 2010 is sneaking up on us.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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