About ‘What We Pay’
The compensation of public-sector employees has dominated much of Wisconsin’s political and economic discussion over the past few years. But what’s been lacking in that discussion is a way to compare what those employees earn in various places, in various circumstances.
“What We Pay: Your tax dollars and the salaries they support” attempts to give you a way to make those comparisons, so that you can be better informed about how your taxes are used.
To compile an exhaustive database of Wisconsin’s public employees, Gannett Wisconsin Media filed 181 open records requests with government agencies and spent more than seven months, sending hundreds of emails and phone calls to ensure the requests were fulfilled under state statute.
The result is a collection of more than 250,000 names, covering every Wisconsin public employee earning more than $25,000 in the most recent available fiscal year. The listing includes state and federal employees, as well as those who work in Wisconsin’s 72 counties; 91 cities, towns or villages with a population of 10,000 or more; 26 University of Wisconsin campuses; 16 technical colleges and 424 public school districts.
We requested names, titles, years of experience, current and prior year salary, overtime and benefits for all employees, though not all entities were able to produce all requested data.
Many entities provided records promptly, but others took months to respond, claimed incorrectly that the records were not subject to open records law or attempted to charge hefty fees. In the end, we spent about $9,000 reimbursing entities for their work, since state statute allows certain costs to be recovered.
The school, state and federal employee data was provided digitally, but some cities and counties provided segmented or hard-copy data, which was hand-entered into digital form. Once the results were checked and double-checked, the data was built into searchable online databases that are being published in “What We Pay: Your tax dollars and the salaries they support” reporting project.
What We Pay: Timeline
Sunday, Jan. 6: University of Wisconsin System, Wisconsin Technical College System
Sunday, Jan. 13: Public school districts
Sunday, Jan. 20: State of Wisconsin
Monday, Jan. 21: Federal
Sunday, Jan. 27: Cities, towns, villages (populations over 10,000)
Sunday, Feb. 3: Counties
Your say ‘What We Pay’
Chat live with Eric Litke, the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team reporter who led our ‘What We Pay’ project, about what we found, what it means and why we report public salary data. The real-time conversation starts at 1 p.m. Monday.
The wheels of government may turn in Washington, D.C., but the feds have a fairly significant footprint in Wisconsin as well.
The latest available salary data — from 2011 — shows more than 12,000 federal employees are stationed in Wisconsin. More than half of them are part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, making the agency the state’s ninth-largest employer, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
The 300 highest-paid federal employees in Wisconsin are all part of the Veterans Health Administration, which serves many of the state’s 400,000-plus veterans. The network includes hospitals in Milwaukee, Madison and Tomah, and 18 outpatient clinics around the state.
In fiscal 2011, the VA facilities in Wisconsin treated 115,000 patients and spent $890 million on medical care, according to department data. Milwaukee County had the highest number of patients seen at nearly 15,000, followed by Dane, Brown, Waukesha, Outagamie and Winnebago counties.
The top earners were primarily doctors, as well as a handful of dentists, nurses and administrators with 2011 base pay ranging from $177,000 to $328,000. The records were provided by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Just outside the top 300 lies the state’s congressional delegation. Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are paid $174,000 annually, a rate that has been frozen since 2009. The speaker of the house and other congressional leaders receive slightly more, though no one in that group is from Wisconsin.
Members of Congress are also eligible for health and life insurance, retirement benefits and allowances for staff salaries, travel, mail and more, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
The federal salary data also includes merit-based awards, which for two VHA psychologists in Milwaukee totaled $47,000 and $37,000. Only seven employees in 2011 had more than $10,000 in awards, which may be money or days off converted to dollars for accounting purposes.
Not included are the approximately 12,000 U.S. Postal Service workers in Wisconsin. USPS — the state’s third-largest employer — is an independent federal agency supported through stamp and mail-service revenue rather than tax dollars.
The federal government withheld data for employees with the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, IRS and those involved with national security or nuclear materials.
The remaining federal employees in Wisconsin are from 84 other agencies, some of which have only a handful of employees here. Agencies with a larger state presence include the Forest Service and Social Security Administration, with around 600 employees apiece.
Other agencies include the Agricultural Research Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cemetery Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Rural Housing Service.
Eric Litke: 920-453-5119, or email@example.com; on Twitter: @ericlitke.