Home / News / Expresso / Issue of the Week: Abele Goes to Bat for His Top Bureaucrats’ Salaries

Issue of the Week: Abele Goes to Bat for His Top Bureaucrats’ Salaries

Nov. 15, 2013
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Has Milwaukee County Supervisor David Cullen declared war on County Executive Chris Abele’s top appointees?

Not at all, he assured the Shepherd last week and most reasonable people would agree with Supervisor Cullen. His amendment capping top aides’ pay was simply bringing their salaries in line with their peers at the state.

“This is not retaliation,” Cullen said.

Cullen’s amendment, which passed 8-0 in the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee, caps top aides’ pay at $120,613, but it exempts the directors of the airport, zoo and parks, as well as the county’s chief information officer and corporation counsel.

The full board is voting on the budget as the Shepherd goes to press; the fate of the amendment is unknown at the moment.

Cullen said that fewer than 10 aides would see a pay cut, but the biggest cut would go to the county’s administrative services director, Don Tyler, whose $142,100 salary would shrink by $21,487. Cullen, a former state legislator, defended the move, saying the state’s Department of Administration secretary earns $126,221 while overseeing 1,000 employees. Tyler is the boss of 330 county workers.

Abele isn’t happy with the committee’s vote, but it would help to restore balance to the contributions he’s asking all employees to make toward their health care. Abele’s proposed budget included a regressive health care contribution that hits lowest-paid employees and parents the hardest. Employees making an average county salary including their health care plan would see their wages shrink more than 7% next year and lower-paid workers would see an even greater percentage drop in their compensation.  That’s on top of the flat salaries and increased contributions that Abele has imposed in previous years.

Abele’s spokesman Brendan Conway wouldn’t say if the county executive would veto Cullen’s amendment if it’s included in the full board’s budget—or if he’d raise property taxes to reward his top appointees. Conway only said that the board acted illegally under Act 14 and didn’t have the authority to cut Abele’s aides’ pay.

Cullen, an attorney by profession, told the Shepherd he was confident that the board was acting within its newly limited powers.

“The county executive might be saying that under the new law he has unilateral authority to set these salaries,” Cullen said. “That’s what he went to Madison to fight for, to make sure that he could pay his bureaucrats as much as he wanted to with no oversight from any other body. But I look at it as policy. And the county board is the policy-making body and even Act 14 admits that. We set the budgets. We have the power to appropriate. And if we can’t control personnel costs and compensation costs, how can we control our budget?”

Conway said the county’s attorney said the board was acting illegally, but he wouldn't provide the Shepherd with any document asserting that interpretation of Act 14.

In response, Cullen said that a judge could determine the legality of the board’s actions. “To my knowledge, no judge has ruled that the county executive has the unilateral authority to create salary bands for county employees,” he wrote in an email.


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