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Answering questions on 'What We Pay' series

8:27 PM, Jan. 28, 2013  |  Comments
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We've gotten considerable feedback - pro and con, disdainful and thankful - during the past few weeks on the Gannett Wisconsin Media "What We Pay" project.

Some readers are thankful that they saw it, and tell us that the analysis of the pay structures has improved their understanding of how their money is spent. We even heard that from a state lawmaker.

Others have taken issue with the publication of names, questioned the need or purpose for the series, and have criticized our work as a way to create "class warfare" in Wisconsin.

Here are responses to several frequently asked questions about "What We Pay: Your tax dollars and the salaries they support":

Why is the series necessary?

We believe in open government. We believe taxpayers are better served with more information, not less.

We believe taxpayers can make their own decisions about the wisdom of how their taxes are spent.

But they need information to make those decisions. Our job is to collect and report that information.

We make no judgments about the salaries. But we have reported about circumstances that seem uncommon, and that readers might appreciate knowing.

Administrators and others who are tasked with overseeing these salaries - and some of those who have earned the salaries - have been given the opportunity to explain the rationale behind their strategies.

But further, against the backdrop of Wisconsin's recent political past, we think it's important to offer readers/taxpayers a method for comparing salaries for similar work in various communities, districts and municipalities. That can be accomplished through the online database at www.marshfieldnewsherald.com/whatwepay, and to some extent, in our print edition.

We've done analysis on each of the areas in this series, and we'll likely do more in the future, after the current six-part package has been fully published.

In print editions, only salaries above $50,000 are published. Why? Does everyone who works in the public sector make that much?

No, of course not. And we've never suggested that.

We created a print-edition minimum of $50,000 in salary for a simple reason: We don't have unlimited space in the print edition of the News-Herald (or any other Gannett Wisconsin Media newspaper) to publish.

We have also noted in print that the online database includes salaries of $25,000 and above.

Under $25,000 are likely to be part-time employees, or entry-level employees in various positions. That could be a topic for a future "What We Pay" story.

Why is it necessary to publish the names of public-sector workers?

We believe taxpayers - and yes, public-sector workers are taxpayers, too - should know who they're paying.

We also believe that if we don't publish names, we're opening the door to charges of "hiding" something or "protecting" someone.

Why aren't the salaries of News-Herald or Gannett Wisconsin Media employees published?

Those aren't public salaries. They aren't paid by tax dollars.

Taxpayers have the right to know how their taxes - money that we generally have no choice but to pay - are being paid. But the salaries of employees of private businesses - banks, restaurants, retail outlets, media companies, factories, etc. - are not supported by tax dollars, and therefore, not public record.

Further, we're not assigning value to anyone's salary.

Isn't the purpose of "What We Pay" to create discord and foster an "Us vs. Them" atmosphere?

No. The purpose of "What We Pay" is to inform taxpayers of how their taxes are spent on public-sector salaries, and provide analysis of local and statewide practices. How readers use that information is their decision.

Why doesn't "What We Pay" offer a public vs. private comparison of salaries?

This is an interesting proposal, but in many cases, there aren't any comparisons to be made.

Many of the functions of government are unique to government, and there are no private-sector equivalents - police and fire, public works, parks and recreation, governmental administration and so on.

But, more importantly, as noted above, private salaries are generally not open to the public. That makes an apples-to-apples comparison even more difficult, without full and accurate data.

It is possible to do an analysis based on what we can discern to be pay ranges of comparable private-sector positions, but the data will vary from market to market, and the jobs are not necessarily comparable.

If you have thoughts about how to accomplish this comparison, send a note to Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team Editor John Ferak at jferak@gannett.com.

Why isn't there analysis in "What We Pay" to explain why salaries are what they are?

We have offered that analysis throughout the series, and we will continue to provide more.

Some readers have suggested that a "What We Get" series would also be helpful, and such a project has been discussed, but not finalized.

Again, if you have thoughts about how to create a meaningful report on that premise, contact John Ferak at jferak@gannett.com.

Dan Flannery is regional executive editor of Gannett Wisconsin Media.

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