Sunday, May 4, 2008

State needs to fix personnel crisis

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has uncovered a bizarre scheme in the short-staffed Department of Corrections where some guards work overtime and then call in sick, getting premium pay for overtime nonetheless.

Some of the guards came near or over six figure salaries considering their overtime pay. In one cited example, a guard at Redgranite Correctional Institution used nearly 23 days of sick leave in 2006. She was paid $97,280 that year, including $51,042 in overtime. The Department of Corrections shelled out more than $36 million in taxpayer money for overtime that year.

It's time for a huge reality check and corrective action.

Let's start with the Redgranite officer. Her base pay parallels that of young Assistant District Attorneys who have doctorate degrees and, instead of making big dollars, often have over six figures in educational debt. I doubt that officer has the educational background or debt load that these young prosecutors have and they don't get a dime in overtime! (Plus her total wages with overtime approaches the pay earned by the state's most senior attorneys -- people with well over 20 years on the job.)

There are several glitches in the state employment system that need fixing.

First, if the Department of Corrections -- or any other agency -- needs that much overtime, there's a bigger problem with maintaining adequate staffing levels.

Second, who is minding the store when it comes to tracking potential sick leave abuse?

Third, why are career professional employees with advanced degrees making less money and get no overtime whatsoever? The public suffers from the revolving talent door.

Make no mistake -- employees deserve to be fairly compensated for their work. It's not their fault that the state is so mismanaged.

On the flip side, the abuses and inequity must stop.

And, finally, what's with these workers blowing their sick leave? Yes, they may be cranking out big wages to improve their pension checks, but retirees are required to pay for their own health insurance and unused sick leave is converted to a fund at retirement to pay those premiums. That's supposed to be an incentive for employees not to overuse sick leave -- and generally it works. But these examples are deplorable.

Will the Pleasant Prairie Village Board (literally) turn the clock backward?

There's an interesting agenda item listed for tomorrow night's Pleasant Prairie Village Board meeting.

Buried almost at the bottom is a resolution to move the village board meeting time from 6:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

You'll recall that one of the complaints challengers Alex Tiahnybok and Jeff Lauer raised in their successful campaigns was that the board's old 5:00 p.m. meeting time was unreasonable for most citizens to attend.

After Tiahnybok and Laurer upset incumbents Tom Terwall and Bill O'Toole, village board meetings were moved to 7:30 p.m. starting May 16, 2005. That didn't last long as board meetings went into the late evening.

On September 19, 2005 the village board adopted a motion by Trustee Mike Serpe, seconded by Trustee Steve Kumorkiewicz, to move the meeting time to 6:30 p.m. Serpe made the motion "in the spirit of cooperation."

That spirit should prevail today.

Tiahnybok and Lauer's obstreperous behavior got them booted from the board last year. They were wrong about a lot of things -- but not this one.

The meetings should remain at 6:30 p.m. (an earlier start time than the Kenosha city council or the Bristol and Somers town boards, all of which start at 7:00 p.m.) and trustees who would vote otherwise would justifiably be exposed to political fallout.

Bosman shows some balls

Newly minted Kenosha mayor Keith Bosman pegged it correctly when he said any new public safety dispatch center should be built downtown, a point raised here seven months ago.

I also wrote additional commentaries on October 31, 2007, November 6, 2007 and November 8, 2007.

It's nice to see that some of our politicians are paying attention. Let's hope that trend continues and the proposed boondoggle is laid to rest.

Bear hugs for Craig Swanson

Bear hugs to Kenosha News editor Craig Swanson for finally giving ghost editorial writer Dale McFeatters a photo and byline.

McFeatters is an editorial writer for Scripps-Howard newspapers which sells his work to other newspapers, including the Kenosha News.

Our local newspaper has been using McFeatters' work product but without any attribution, creating the impression that the Kenosha News was responsible for the content.

Swanson demonstrated a good streak of journalistic integrity by bringing McFeatters out of the closet. It was a smart move (especially since McFeatters' work looks more like commentaries than editorials) and we can only hope the trend will continue.

A whole forest of moose droppings to Steve Lund, the Kenosha News editorial guru who floats the idea that former county executive Allan Kehl should be required, if convicted of federal campaign corruption allegations, to make restitution for the cost of the special election to fill his vacancy. Regardless of any legal impediments to this idea, Lund glosses over the fact that the Kenosha News called for Kehl to step aside. On that basis maybe the Kenosha News should pay the cost of the special election!

Where does the UW System really stand on the cost of an education?

Today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story on how University of Wisconsin campus chancellors are leaving in droves for better paying opportunities is interesting but masks other parts of the discrepancy story.

For example, the UW folks like to trot out numbers to show how faculty salaries lag behind comparable schools and then they cry crocodile tears for all the poor students being forced out of an education by rising tuition.

But the same folks who do that have also come up with this doozie which seems to suggest that UW tuitions are too low with the subtle hint that maybe if they get jacked up again there would be more money to pay increased faculty salaries.

They gloss over the fact that tuition increases significantly outpaced the inflation rate. According to Business Week: "Four-year public colleges have taken the hardest hit, with the rate of growth in tuition and fees this decade the highest it has been in 30 years. The average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges for the 2007-08 academic year are $6,185, up $381 (or 6.6%) from last year, the College Board said. Those numbers don't include room and board and other expenses, which add about $7,404 to the bill. The consumer price index for all urban consumers rose 2.8% between September, 2006, and September, 2007."

And UW? Glad you asked. UW's tuition is above the national average which begs the question that if students are overcharged and faculty is underpaid, where is the money going?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Is this Chief Flynn's first public blunder?

Ed Flynn, Milwaukee's new police chief, has been shaking things up a little with generally positive responses from his department and the community.

Flynn empowered his seven district captains to develop and implement crime reduction strategies in their respective districts, giving them the credit and the spotlight.

He's also made it clear that officers who screw up will be dealt with but those who do their jobs the right way will enjoy his prompt and public backing.

That's why it's a little difficult to swallow what may be his first public blunder.

Flynn is changing the appearance of Milwaukee's patrol cars to the "black and white" look right out of Hollywood (or LAPD, to be exact). But having a "little fun" as Flynn says comes with a price tag of $300 per car.

It's hard to tell how many marked police cars the Milwaukee PD has but the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department has 429 with nearly 200 fewer officers. So let's just say Milwaukee has 10% more officers and 10% more marked cars. At $300 a pop that's nearly $142,000 -- or about the cost of two new police officers.

Black and white police cars or two additional cops on the beat? That's a no-brainer. Hire the cops.

Thanking John Antaramian

Last month John Antaramian unceremoniously wrapped up 16 years of service as Kenosha's mayor. While his tenure hasn't been without controversy, some of it justified, the bottom line is that the city is a better place today than it was 16 years ago.

To be fair, Antaramian's predecessor, Pat Moran, got the ball rolling toward moving Kenosha away from a moribund community that could have been paralyzed when Chrysler pulled the plug on automobile production in 1988. (And it certainly seemed mysteriously disingenuous when Moran, who last month was defeated in an effort to get his old job back, was critical of the initiatives he helped set in motion.)

The truth is Kenosha's neighborhoods look a lot better than they did 16 years ago. So does the lakefront. There are more job opportunities. And of particular note is that Kenosha did something many cities haven't: the city not only expanded outward but renewed and redeveloped inner city neighborhoods. Imagine what Milwaukee or Racine would look like if those cities followed the same path.

It's not been perfect. Kenosha has the trolley to nowhere, bizarre support for the KRM rail fleece which doesn't benefit Kenosha, construction of a school across the street from a prison, reduced fire protection, potholes that could be filled with subcompacts and arguably some of the worst snowplowing and ice control in the nation.

But if folks like John Antaramian didn't fight the good fight, imagine how much worse things would be today. And that created a particular dilemma for new mayor Keith Bosman. He'll need to improve on Antaramian's track record or risk getting the boot at the next mayoral election.

Pleasant Prairie has every right to question school district

Allow to me to ask you this question: If you paid for two gallons of gas but only received one, what would you think? What would you do?

That scenario sums up the situation where village of Pleasant Prairie taxpayers cough up one-fourth of the Kenosha Unified School District's revenues for educating less than one-eighth of the district's students.

On that basis alone village residents, through their village board, have every right to weigh in on how the district is being run.

In the days before Kenosha Unified -- when there was a "joint" school district -- the Pleasant Prairie and Somers town chairmen met with the Kenosha city council as the fiscal control board. The school board prepared the school budget but the fiscal control board approved the tax levy which, in essence, gave the final say to the city council and town chairmen.

Nowadays the village board appoints a school commission which is supposed to serve as a liaison between the village and the school district but, except for staging candidate forums, hasn't done much.

That may -- and should -- change.

The village board wisely asked the school commission to look into the risky financial shenanigans pulled by the school board which went out and borrowed money to invest in the functional equivalent of risky junk bonds. The district's investments have lost half their value and what may have seemed like a good idea at the time is being called into question today.

Before anyone shoots off about what business does the village board have looking into the affairs of the school district, I'll tell you.

It's not uncommon for major stockholders -- particularly pension funds -- to weigh in on how the corporations they invest in are managed. These funds often carry a lot of clout when it comes to whacking reckless corporate management into line.

When the village is paying for two gallons but only getting one, there's every right and, in fact, a duty to speak out.

Much ado was made -- but little done -- a few years ago when the tax equity study showed that the village and the city were paying a disproportionate share of the county budget when compared with services actually received.

Here we have a clear and distinct inequity that, coupled with the school board's risky business ventures, compels that the village weigh in.

I've long argued that the school commission should either be given some real work to do or be disbanded. I congratulate the board for at least making some effort to give the commission a meaningful assignment but maybe it's still not enough.

There's been an undercurrent for several months about whether the village should form its own school district. Maybe it's possible, maybe it isn't. Maybe it's feasible, maybe it isn't. My initial look at this suggests that it might need some legislative action to accomplish but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We won't know if we don't give it a serious examination.

When village taxpayers are paying for two gallons and only getting one, nobody can fault this board for taking action to protect the best interests of taxpayers of today and, perhaps more important, the taxpayers of tomorrow.