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THE REPORTER EDITORIAL: Why we are publishing public employee salaries

Special report provides better understanding, perspective to guide discussion, policy decisions

5:51 PM, Jan. 5, 2013  |  Comments
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When citizens weigh in on government spending, the impact of public employee wages often is central to the discussion.

Some people tend to believe that public employees earn too much compared with private sector employees. Others believe public employees earn too little for all the value they bring to the table, whether it's their dedication to providing critical community services, or meeting the needs of a demanding public.

Often, a very personal question is asked: "I wonder what that public employee makes, compared with what I make in a private sector job?"

Gannett Wisconsin Media and The Reporter Media are publishing a five-week investigative special report, examining what public employees earn in every sector of local, state and federal government across the state.

As part of the analysis, we are publishing a digital database of all public employees with base salaries of $25,000 and up, using the latest available data from 2011-12. In addition, we are publishing in our print editions all public employee base salaries of $50,000 and up. Both online and in print, we are including each employee's name, title, years of service, and compensation including benefits where available, to give our readers a fuller understanding of what drives government payrolls, and even to help readers make comparisons with their own compensation.

Some readers will feel we shouldn't publish the names of the employees along with their salaries.

But as taxpayers, all of us pay the wages of public employees, and so the names and compensation are part of the public record, as well they should be. As the ultimate "boss," every citizen has every right to know what a public servant earns. Any citizen can request that very information from any government office, and that office by law must provide it. Through open records requests, the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team did just that for this special report.

That said, it would be an extremely cumbersome process for a private citizen to actually obtain this huge body of data from a number of government entities, much less obtain enough of it to make good comparisons across jobs and across different government bodies.

By obtaining and publishing the information through this special report, and more so by sorting the data and putting it into perspective, Gannett Wisconsin Media is doing the hard legwork on our readers' behalf. We are making the information infinitely more accessible, providing a "one-stop," easy-to-digest collection point for the voluminous data, and we are offering a deep analysis to help foster an informed, robust discussion of the topic.

For instance, today's first installment of this special report explains that many technical college instructors make significant "extra" compensation through "overages" that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars annually, their pay boosted by taking on extra classes beyond contract workload. We also explain that University of Wisconsin professors generally make less than instructors in the technical college system.

Our readers may decide for themselves whether they believe these wage variances are reasonable or desirable.

But there is more to the story: Close to home, our analysis also found that average salaries for professors at UW-Fond du Lac are lower than for their peers at both the technical schools and the larger UW campuses. In fact, UW-Fond du Lac had the second-lowest average professor pay among the 13 two-year UW colleges. And the total pay, including overages, among full-time instructors at Moraine Park Technical College was on average the fifth lowest among the 16 technical colleges in the state.

So, the analysis raises more questions: What extra recruitment and retention challenges might UW-Fond du Lac or MPTC face given the disparate wage pools? Is the variance understandable, and more or less ok? Is it fair? Or is something out of sync? Should there be an effort to level the compensation in at least some cases? And how best to do that?

All the information we are providing over the next five weeks - the salaries, the comparisons, the perspective - is intended to offer the public, policy makers and lawmakers a fuller understanding of public employee compensation. Our ultimate goal is to help guide good policy decisions about the government payrolls to which we all contribute tax dollars.

We want to make another important point:

Because every government employee is a public servant, every one of them should be proud of what they earn and proud of the service they provide for the good of their communities and their state.

For readers who might be skeptical about that, we invite you to review the lists of salaries that will be published over the next five weeks. You might find the name of a friend or neighbor, maybe a teacher you know who enlightens your child, or an officer who waves to you as he patrols your street. And you might be surprised to learn that they don't make nearly enough for all they do.

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