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Mayor's Salary Proves a Conundrum for Council

Most aldermen agree that city executive's pay is abysmal — and that now is not the time to change it.

With nearly enough aldermen in the audience to make up a full council quorum if added to those at the table, a Tuesday night committee meeting turned into an early referendum on the subject of , which has been stuck at $22,500 since 1984.

No vote was taken, no recommendation was made and nothing close to a consensus was reached. But if a majority of those present had made a resolution, it probably would have been something like this:

The mayor's salary is ridiculously, embarrassingly low; it is long overdue to be raised; and we aren't going to do it.

One after another, aldermen repeated it like a mantra: Yes, the mayor deserves a raise; no, this is not the right time.

Peter Donegan, chairman of the Employee Relations Committee, issued what amounted to a polite warning in even introducing the subject that had lain dormant since January 2010.

"We have employee relations matters coming at us in abundance," he said.

With the , Donegan said, the city would be in a position of restructuring salary and benefit scales across the board.

"Staff will be very busy," he said. "I'd like to know if there is a will to pursue this now. If not, let's get this out and not waste staff time."

Nevertheless, the ball started rolling and didn't stop for nearly an hour in a wide-ranging, soul-searching civics debate that touched not only on the mayor's  annual pay, but also on reducing the size of the Common Council, redefining the role of the mayor, the merits of public service, and the place and image of Wauwatosa.

Ald. Bobby Pantuso, from the audience: "I think it's a ridiculously low salary..." but 18 months ago when it was last discussed, "we said that we were not going to do anything until things got better. Things haven't gotten better."

Alds. Linda Nikcevich and Bob Birschel both made strong arguments that holding the mayor's office had long since grown into a full-time job deserving of a full-time salary, but each quietly acknowledged that public sentiment would likely run against it.

Nikcevich was also concerned that at the current salary, no one could afford to be mayor "unless you're supported by someone else or independently wealthy."

Donegan said that city staff had calculated that in constant dollars, a salary of $22,500 in 1984 would have grown to between $52,000 and $53,000 today.

But Ald. Jeff Roznowski warned: "Based on what we heard in March and April (during the union contract debate), we'd be crazy to spend more than two seconds on this."

Ald. Dennis McBride said the current pay "is woefully inadequate. That being said, this is a horrible time (to raise it)."

McBride said he would support a 33 percent increase in the mayor's pay, "but only with a commensurate reduction in the size of the council" to offset the raise.

"Do we really need 16 aldermen?" he asked. "I don't think we do."

Police Chief Barry Weber minced no words in saying that the mayor's salary "makes us kind of a laughingstock around the county."

Tosa resident Tom Gaertner said, "I like my government small and I like it nonpartisan, so I favor keeping it a public service position."

As to the timing of the discussion, Gaertner added: "There's still a lot of pain" from the recession.

But resident Christine McLaughlin countered: "I don't like the keeping of salaries low in my behest. Don't use my unemployment as an excuse to keep other people underpaid."

Back at the committee table, Ald. Michael Walsh flatly declared that the mayor's job is a public service position and part time by definition — the mayor is free to decide how many hours to spend on the job and it's up to voters to decide whether he or she is putting in enough. Walsh made a motion to recommend no raise.

But he couldn't get a second, and committee Vice Chairman Cheryl Berdan had the last word, much in line with most of what she had heard.

"I think that what we expect of our mayor is worth a whole lot more than what we're paying," Berdan said. "I've felt that way about every mayor.

"If I were the mayor, I think from my perspective that would be an embarrassment."

But, she concluded, "If I were to go by my constituents — they don't want me to spend any more money."

With that, the matter was left to city staff for further study before another hearing of the matter in July.

The salary of Mayor Jill Didier, who has been silent on whether she thinks the pay is too low, cannot be raised during her four-year term. Any raise approved now would take effect only when the next mayoral term starts in 2012.

If no action is taken, there would be no more opportunity to raise the salary until 2016.

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