If the dynamics weren’t so similar to national trends in both the public and private job sectors, recent employee turnover at City Hall would be eye-catching.
One might need to look no farther than two resignations over the past three months: The departure of Economic Development Director Gale Price and Department of Public Works Director Paul Woodard.
Between the two employees, Price and Woodard had amassed more than 50 years of collective institutional knowledge as careerlong municipal government employees who had risen to the top of their respective division at City Hall. Woodard, who supervised 130 workers and whose last annual payday as public works chief was listed at $153,000, said he was leaving City Hall for other work. Price left his post earlier in 2022 for an executive-level job in the private sector at a local bank.
The city of Janesville is actively recruiting to fill those two major roles. But the gap that Woodard’s and Price’s departure leaves embodies just two of the dozens of emerging openings at City Hall over the past year.
The churnJanesville City Manager Mark Freitag and Tera Semanchuk—the city’s new human resources director—say COVID-19 pandemic “fatigue,” particularly among older employees, has played a role in some of the recent turnover, which at times during the pandemic has jumped as high as 10% or 12%, with “at least 20 or 30” unfilled openings as of early March.
In January alone, the city dealt with nine staff resignations.
That’s a churn rate that roughly matches the average for all industries, and while it’s much lower than average turnover rates of 40% to 45% in private industry sectors such as restaurants and warehousing, 10% turnover is about twice what the city typically sees.
As in the private sector, municipal governments like Janesville have for years been anticipating a significant wave of retirements this decade. The city of Janesville’s average employee age is 46, about 5 years older, on average than the average age of workers across all U.S. industries.
On top of that, a significant number of city employees, including dozens of police and fire employees, are primed under state employee pension rules to retire fairly early, sometimes as young as age 53.
Amid a washout over the last year in longtime employees who were eligible for retirement, the city finds itself now competing against the typically higher-paying private sector for the talent the city needs to fill main roles such as a director of public works.
“Gauge it this way: I haven’t talked to a private business owner recently who’s told me it’s easy right now to retain people or that it’s easy to attract people,” Freitag said. “It’s definitely the employee’s market. They can pick and choose. They can be very, very selective.”
This week, the Janesville City Council approved the city spending $60,000 for a consultant to conduct what will be the city’s first comprehensive, non-union employee salary survey since 2015.
The survey was scheduled for 2020 but got scrapped as a “cost-containment” measure during the pandemic. The survey, Semenchuk said in a memo, is part of an effort to “attract and retain high-performing employees by providing equitable compensation and opportunities for advancement.”
Freitag said it is not as simple as the city pushing a green light on pay increases for new or existing hires. It is more complicated for local governments in Wisconsin to enact pay increases, especially during periods of inflation like the one the country is going through now. The city’s payroll already dominates about two-thirds of the city’s fixed costs, a proportion roughly on par with other municipalities statewide.
Taxpayers must shoulder pay increases, and in Wisconsin, municipalities are limited to increasing tax levies based on the value of net new construction. Even if the city wanted to match or exceed private sector pay, it would be limited by taxpayers’ willingness—and the city’s own ability under law—to increase revenue.
That constraint might lead the city to resort to some of the same changes in benefits or workplace flexibility that private-sector employers are using to win new employees and retain others.
It might not be easy for the city to match private pay rates, but the survey also is intended to find whether the city is offering pay for certain positions that doesn’t match what other municipal governments pay.
Lori Stottler has worked in local government for 15 years, first as an elected Rock County clerk in 2007 to 2015. But for the last seven years, Stottler worked as a hired municipal clerk for the city of Beloit. She took over as city of Janesville clerk-treasurer last September during the thick of the city’s budget planning season.
Stottler’s role would be a difficult one to fill even under the most unencumbered of job markets because it requires a working knowledge of both municipal finance and state statutes that Stottler said she is still learning every day.
To be a clerk, Stottler had left work in the private sector in nonprofits. She said the fact that a municipal clerk’s work is never quite finished is what appealed to her most. She and her nine employees can’t get too bored on the job, she said, because there’s no diluting the responsibilities her office tends to.
“Even during the pandemic, we never closed. Every single day, you’re here to answer the phones, we still had to process the utility payments, and we still had to build a utility bill. And you know, we still had to get the city council and committee meeting materials together and hold the records,” Stottler said. “That’s the coolest thing about the clerk-treasurer’s office is it stops for nothing. You can postpone other things; the work a clerk does can’t be postponed.”
Freitag said the city has seen a mixed bag in both its outflow of employees and the inflow of new ones. The city has seen people leave for jobs in both the private sector and for jobs in other municipal governments.
But as the number of available employees shifts, residents in more communities than just Janesville have seen the pace and schedule of some routine city work—mowing at city parks, for instance—change.
Residents don’t always know what contributes to staffing changes, but many notice a difference in the level of service a city government provides.
“They really don’t care about what we’re paying people or what the work atmosphere is here; they just want that level of service to remain at a consistent level. In fact, our resident satisfaction survey’s main theme, if you will, was that residents said, ‘Don’t drop your service levels,’” Freitag said.
While most respondents were happy with most city services, about half were unhappy with the city’s roads and one-third do not trust city leaders.
Is that as simple as paying what it takes to hire more employees to hold the line on services the city offers? Freitag says no.
“They are not asking you to increase services or increase costs, but they want us to continue to maintain those service levels.”
As staff and students at St. John Vianney Catholic School sat in the commons area Thursday afternoon, the student council’s public relations officer Kaitlyn McKay began to talk about why they were there.
“Every year we like to give back to the community,” McKay told the crowd, with the Janesville Craig High School Student Council sitting in front.
“This year, we picked somebody from St. John’s that is a familiar face to most of us standing up here, and she is a great person,” McKay continued. “I did not get the honor of being taught by her, but a lot of my peers did.”
And then came the big surprise.
“So Mrs. Arndt? Would you accept this donation of $5,000?”
The crowd cheered as kindergarten teacher Mary Arndt walked toward the student council with her hands over her mouth as she began to tear up. She hugged many of her former students before giving a short speech to the crowd.
Arndt and her husband both have battled cancer multiple times in their lives, and last year, they had cancer at the same time. That’s partly why, she told The Gazette, they started the Bob and Mary Arndt Cancer Endowment Fund. That fund is the recipient of the $5,000 donation.
Stefanie Hanson, adviser for the student council and a science teacher at Craig, told The Gazette that the council works to pick a local charity each year. This past year, they held a holiday party and also reached out to local businesses to donate to the charity. Prent, Rock Road, JP Cullen and Sons, Silha Excavating, and Culver’s all donated to the cause.
“This is what we keep telling you all the time,” Arndt told the crowd of students. “When you leave here, you are going to be the leaders in the community. Starting in high school, this is fantastic.”
The executive board of Craig’s student council includes the president Catie Werner, vice president Kelly Heinzen, secretary McKaylie Justman, treasurer Carly Stengel, school board representative Charlotte Mark and public relations officer Kaitlyn McKay.
“It’s such a good cause, especially because it’s cancer; my grandma died of cancer,” Werner told The Gazette. “It’s finding that personal connection, and who wouldn’t want to pick Mrs. Arndt for this, you know?”
Even before being diagnosed with cancer, Arndt said, her husband, Bob, was on the foundation board at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville. As part of the board, he wanted to do something to help those suffering from cancer.
“I would help with that committee,” said Mary, who eventually took Bob’s place on the board. “Then, both my husband and I were diagnosed after (the fund was started). It all happened within months.”
Both Mary and Bob Arndt are now cancer-free since January 2020.
The endowment fund at St. Mary’s will ensure cancer patients at the hospital get a gift bag of products to help assist them and give patients comfort during their cancer journey.
Mary Arndt said she is grateful for the donation as the gift bags are just now being distributed at the hospital.
“There are 40 different people every month that will get that news (that they have cancer),” she told the students. “And it sucks, but this will help them. Thank you so much for all you’ve done.”
Rock County has been under drought conditions for a full year now, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, but one model predicts the dry weather will dissipate in the coming months.
All of the county is still considered to be in “moderate drought,” according to the monitor, a group based at the University of Nebraska. The drought had been considered “severe” as recently as the first week of October. Rock County has had a designation of “abnormally dry” or worse for every week dating back to March 16, 2021, leaving the county with low levels of water that adversely affect agriculture.
Hydrologist Sarah Marquardt of the National Weather Service office in Sullivan said the northern half of Rock County saw about 4 inches of precipitation in March while the southern half of the county collected about 3 inches. While both of these totals are above the annual March precipitation average of 2.25 inches, there still remains a 4-inch precipitation deficit compared to normal levels dating back to September, much of which can be attributed to a dry winter, she said.
Josh Kamps of the UW Extension office in Lafayette County said the lack of precipitation in June and July of last year created a lot of stress for farmers, especially when it came to crop output. While it’s still early in this year’s growing season, Kamps said he is hopeful soil moisture levels will be higher than they were last year when they test the soil in the next week.
With the recent weeks of rain and snow, Janesville and Rock County have continued to close their precipitation deficits from last year. According to the Climate Prediction Center, drought conditions will improve or go away completely across much of southern Wisconsin, including Rock County, in the next three months.
Dr. Paul Bennett
Joan Rita Bjelde
Paul W. Case
Donald G. Gies
Lawrence A. “Larry” Hausner
Alan Lyle Laughlin
Asher M. “Lily” Bondehagen Meskan
Connie J. McKearn
James F. “Jim” Reuterskiold
Tara Lee Warden