In spite of their seniority, some of Oshkosh’s longest-serving department heads’ salaries lag well behind their statewide counterparts.
Oshkosh Police Chief Scott Greuel, Fire Chief Tim Franz and City Attorney Lynn Lorenson each lead city departments. All three have served the citizens of Oshkosh for more than 20 years, and all three rank among the city’s 10 highest-paid city employees in 2012.
But they’re also the only three in Oshkosh’s top 10 whose salaries fall well outside the top 10 among their statewide peers, according to a Northwestern Media review of city employee salary data.
City Manager Mark Rohloff’s $127,500 base salary ranks eighth among all city managers and administrators. Public Works Director David Patek’s $119,610 salary puts him third among public works directors. And Finance Director Peggy Steeno’s $108,411 salary is sixth-highest among finance directors, treasurers and comptrollers.
Those salaries are mostly in line with Oshkosh’s rank as the state’s eighth largest city.
However, Lorenson’s $102,475 salary ranks her 19th among city and village attorneys. Franz’s $101,831 salary is 17th among fire chiefs, and Greuel’s $97,099 salary places him 30th among police chiefs.
“The relatively recent hires’ salary ranks versus those of long-term employees is a serious problem,” Rohloff said. “The real concern I have is relative to their peers, they are underpaid.”
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Political Science Professor James Simmons said it’s no surprise that the majority of the city’s top administrators are among the highest paid in the state.
He said the higher salaries come with the city manager-common council form of government. A national search for a professional administrator, like the one conducted that resulted in Rohloff’s hire in 2008, requires competitive compensation levels.
“They’re found through a regional or national search. The chief administrative officer then does a search for department heads and you, of course, naturally end up with higher salaries,” Simmons said.
Assistant City Manager John Fitzpatrick, whose $115,270 salary is second among the relatively few assistant managers in the state, said the search that resulted in Rohloff being hired and successive searches to fill director positions in parks, community development, the library, transportation and finance pushed salaries higher to attract the most qualified candidates.
He said the comparative pay chasm between long-term employees and more recent hires was exacerbated by a three-year wage freeze for all employees not represented by unions. The issue has been especially difficult in public safety departments where police and firefighters unions continue to be able to negotiate for raises.
The result has been instances in the police and fire departments where hourly employees, through a combination of wage increases and overtime, earned as much as or more than their superiors.
“All levels of compensation are connected,” he explained. “But if we correct the wage compression issues and keep non-represented and represented employee increases consistent, we shouldn’t have a problem.”
Simmons has studied and written extensively about the city’s different forms of government over its history and previously advocated for a change to a mayor-alderman form of government. In recent months, he and fellow UWO Professor of Public Administration Karl Nollenberger have tried to see if one format or the other is more effective or affordable.
Simmons said their research has shown that there is some savings with an elected mayor instead of a city manager, but that neither format has proven more effective at key benchmarks like reducing crime, promoting commercial growth or reducing spending.
“Since council-manager form is theoretically closer to the business format, you’re going to see larger salaries,” Simmons said. “Advocates on both sides will argue taxes, benefits and accountability, but in tangible ways, you don’t see much.”
Jeff Bollier: (920) 426-6688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.