The Most Overpaid Bureaucrat in Wisconsin?

La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley is by a gaping chasm the highest-paid county administrator in the state of Wisconsin. In fact, he makes considerably more than the governor, the state’s top bureaucrat, and any other county administrator – and now he’s up for a raise.

According to this analysis comparing county administrator salaries conducted in 2011, the average salary at that time was $110,481 among the counties that reported their county’s salary data. That year, O’Malley in La Crosse was paid a salary of $167,314, which included 67.37 compensated days off under categories vacation, sick, holiday, and personal leave days, which is more than 13 work weeks.

O’Malley’s salary is $56,833 more than the average county administrator. His salary is much more than triple the pay of a state representative, who makes about $50,000 per year – and about 3.5 times more than the median household income in La Crosse County.

Sometimes, the population of the region a bureaucrat oversees is a factor in determining the amount of money taxpayers are forced to fund the bureaucrat’s position. Since our comparative data is from 2011, we’ll use that year for our comparison.

The population of La Crosse County in 2011 was 115,291. By contrast, the county administrator in Rock County – which in 2011 had 160,026 residents – earned $123,935, or $43,379 less than O’Malley in La Crosse County, which had at that time just 72 percent the population of Rock County. The comparative population today is virtually identical.

In 2015, O’Malley’s salary on the same basis was $183,454 – that’s a pay raise since 2011 of $16,140. O’Malley makes far more than the Governor at $147,328 and the state’s top bureaucrat, Secretary of Administration Scott Neitzel, who makes about $128,000.

The La Crosse Tribune now reports that the La Crosse County Board next week will consider a generous pay raise that will go into the 57-year-old O’Malley’s retirement account:

The new contract, which takes effect at the start of 2016, will increase the annual deferred compensation bonus to $13,000 in 2016 and $16,000 by the end of 2019.

The question of giving O’Malley yet another pay raise has not been done in the light of day, which is the modus operandi of County Board Chairwoman Tara Johnson and the predecessor to whom she is loyal, now-state-rep Steve Doyle, who created the position and hired O’Malley for it in 2003.

That the terms of O’Malley’s contract would be revised did not come up in last Monday’s planning meeting, according to a La Crosse County Board supervisor with whom I spoke but who, by my own choice, I will not name. Instead, a cryptic email was sent around to the county board asking supervisors to rate O’Malley’s performance, without mentioning that the evaluation would be used as propaganda justifying giving O’Malley a contract extension and pay raise.

(The evaluation was not anonymous and opens by asking supervisors for “Any positive feedback that you have to offer on Steve’s performance.”) 

In fact, the four-year pay raise for O’Malley was never on any agenda. Instead, following her asking the County Board to evaluate O’Malley’s job performance, Johnson gave an interview to the La Crosse Tribune in which she praised his performance, described the terms of the contract and pay raise, and justified the move as part of a retention effort. An agenda for the executive committee meeting that was posted on June 4 and held on June 10 stated that the meeting was to go to closed session to discuss the terms of the contract, but no communication on the matter was sent until the story had already posted to the Tribune website, meaning supervisors found out when everyone else did.

In a wee-hours-of-Thursday-morning email to County Board supervisors, Johnson wrote:

Thursday’s La Crosse Tribune will have an article about the Executive Committee’s decision on Wednesday to recommend extending Steve O’Malley’s contract and the details of its terms…Although I am not a consumer of it, I assume this message is lagging the on-line version of the Tribune.  However, hopefully it is a heads-up, albeit brief, in advance of the publishing of the print version…The Executive Committee will hold a special meeting at 5:30 next Thursday to vote on the resolution that will be on the County Board agenda that evening…I look forward to our discussion next week on this important matter, and, as always, feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.

The email came out at 2:48 a.m. this past Thursday, after the Tribune article had posted, and was the first that supervisors not included in the closed-door executive committee meeting on the matter had heard the details of the contract changes.

An additional meeting to consider the contract changes will occur immediately before the next meeting of the County Board, where the changes will be voted on and will almost certainly pass. “We were not told about this in any of our meetings,” the supervisor I spoke with said. The supervisor confirmed that it’s fair to say no county board supervisor was told about the plans for O’Malley’s contract prior to the Tribune article being posted and Johnson’s email being sent just after bartime.

O’Malley has always had a cushy gig; when he was hired in 2003, he did not have a master’s degree, usually a prerequisite for such a job, let alone the highest-paying one in the state. As part of the deal O’Malley’s master’s degree was paid for by the county.

In 2011, under the leadership of Chairman Steve Doyle, the County Board considered new language for O’Malley’s contract that replaced the term “as per contract” with “indefinite” granting O’Malley essentially a lifelong gravy train and, should he be fired, a golden parachute entitling him to exhaust the contract.

The Tribune story dutifully repeated the pleas of Johnson that nobody but O’Malley can do the job he does, and La Crosse County should pay him whatever he wants to keep him from leaving:

County board Chairwoman Tara Johnson said O’Malley’s level of expertise and experience merits making sure he’ll stay. He regularly is approached about other jobs, she said, and in 2013 was a finalist as administrator for Hennepin County, which has the highest population in Minnesota.

The option to leverage oneself into a massive pay raise simply by entertaining an equally lucrative offer from another county closer to home must be nice. But the truth of the matter isn’t that the world lacks public admin graduates with experience as flacks in county administrators’ offices, but that leadership in La Crosse County likes having O’Malley around, and is too ineffective to even successfully find a deputy administrator for nearly $100,000 a year.

(My guess is that the search for a deputy administrator, for which I could’ve recommended several outstanding candidates, was insincere and an effort to establish justification for deals like this.)

As a matter of basic economics, if Hennepin County (ten times the size of La Crosse County with a population of 1.2 million) can pay O’Malley considerably more money than La Crosse County can, he should turn in his keys and pack up the station wagon. O’Malley’s salary should be dictated by the market, even if he’s really the best thing to happen to La Crosse since the World’s Largest Six Pack. If he’s eminently qualified to manage a much larger county and they’re lining up to pay him commensurately, then that’s what he should do.

The insinuation that nobody but Steve O’Malley can or will do the job at a rate that’s fair to taxpayers is absurd, and if he truly would leave but for the largesse available on the backs of La Crosse taxpayers, I hope he doesn’t let the door hit him on the way out.

Simply as a share of the La Crosse County budget, Steve O’Malley’s lavish salary is a raindrop in a downpour. But as a symbol of the cronyism and corruption of his benefactor, Steve Doyle, he’s both a jewel and a monument to the rotten state of our county government and the spectacular failure of La Crosse’s media.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.