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Greenfield's Retirements Produce Unimaginable Loss of Experience

This year's city retirements will account for a loss of more than 600 years of combined service.

Over the final five weeks of 2011, the will lose more than 400 years of experience as 15 employees in five different departments have retired or will between Nov. 27 and Dec. 31.

The numbers for the entire year are even more staggering. Before the upcoming exodus, eight more city workers combining for 242 years of service retired earlier in the year, boosting 2011’s totals to 23 employees with a combined 650 years of experience leaving the city and taking their skills and knowledge with them.

Of those 23 departures, which accounted for more than 10 percent of the city's full-time employees, 11 were 30-plus-year veterans, including the leader of the experience pack – former police chief Frank Springob, .

“It’s not just decades of work, it’s centuries of work and all those things they learned along the way are all important,” Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke said. “They all created efficiencies and when people have to relearn them or rediscover them, it creates challenges.

“It’s also an opportunity. Maybe there’s a better way to do it than it was done before.”

Not coincidentally, all but two of the 23 retirements came after Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led Legislature introduced laws that eliminated many collective bargaining rights for public employees and required increased contributions to pensions and health insurance premiums.

The legislation, Acts 10 and 32, did not apply to unionized protective service members, but in Greenfield, both the police and fire unions were among few in the state to agree .

“Many of those people wouldn’t have retired if it weren’t for the state’s political uncertainty,” Neitzke said.

By the end of 2011, the Greenfield police and fire departments will endure the biggest personnel purges, with nine individuals from each department calling it quits. But the rash of retirements is not exclusive to protective services. The Division of Public Works is losing two employees with 55 combined years, including foreman Terry Bartz (31 years). Sandy Knapper, a secretary in the city clerk’s office for 24 years, is leaving. There have also been departures in the municipal court and .

According to Neitzke, a typical year will see just a couple retirements at the end of the year, nothing like 2011.

“A few of the people were really the sort of employees that knew everything about something,” Neitzke said. “There isn’t someone right behind them that can take the ball and run with it.

“Sandy leaving in the clerk’s office is a huge loss because she’s a resident expert in election laws. … Barb (Piotrowski) at the police department is responsible for so much. She has a huge impact over there. The mechanic (Donald Roehl), how much money did he save the city with his knowledge? When you start looking at the (police) inspector (Mark Wildish) and the assistant fire chief (Steve Bauer), they have huge responsibilities to make sure multi-million dollar organizations run well. The examples go on and on.”

The massive turnover numbers have led to the and could put talks of , on the fast-track, according to Neitzke.

“We have to figure it out,” Neitzke said. “If somebody is getting robbed, it’s not like we tell someone to go online and fill out a report. If you’re having a heart attack, we don’t say, we’ll be there Tuesday. If it’s snowing, we don’t tell you we’ll get to it when we have people to do it. Those things all have to get done. I feel confident we’ll be able to do them, but as a community, like most communities, we have to keep getting more efficient at what we do.”

The turnover has led to some financial benefits but not as many as some might expect. The police department’s restructuring trimmed $400,000 from the budget, thanks largely to the elimination of five full-time positions. There are instances where replacement hires make less annually than the retiree made, but many of the city’s retired employees will receive health insurance benefits paid for by the city, as will their replacements.

“I’d rather have the wealth of experience and a little higher-salaried person to continue to do the job than hire a large percentage of new workforce,” Neitzke said.

Fire Department operating at less than capacity

Fire Chief Jon Cohn, always the optimist, has carefully navigated his way through the last six months , plugging holes or patiently waiting for the opportunity to do so.

The department’s nine recent or soon-to-be retirees have accounted for approximately 260 years of service. Of them, five registered 30 or more years with the city, including , and Bauer and Lieutenant Darren Almquist with 32 each. (A good portion of Spahn’s career was spent with the city’s DPW).

The department has eight vacancies, all of which Cohn expects will be filled in the coming months. Once they are, the department will have hired 17 new employees, or a third of the staff, in two years. That means the first of those newer hires will have 16 people ranked beneath him after just 18-24 months. In a normal set of circumstances, climbing that many spots in seniority could take as many as 10-15 years to achieve, Cohn said.

That dynamic puts a bigger emphasis on younger members, Cohn said, to take more active leadership roles within the organization. It also has upped the ante when it comes to new candidates. With so many spots available or becoming available, more and more candidates are coming to the department armed with paramedic experience, bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees for entry-level positions.

“By no means does education replace experience, but the competition drives the bar up,” Cohn said. Replacing so many candidates is “not ideal for the organization, but it does create a self-improving philosophy.”

By the end of the year, the fire department, which two years ago underwent a restructuring process similar to what the police department will experience Jan. 1, will have lost its chief and assistant chief, and five of six lieutenants either retired or were promoted. The turnover isn’t limited to personnel.

“What’s lost is that sharing of experiences with our new people,” Cohn said. “Part of your culture changes. Part of your history changes or is lost. You don’t hear those funny stories first-hand. You hear them second- and third-hand. The difficulty is now we have expectations on some of our least senior members to become mentors to our new people.

“Part of the beauty of the organization is we just keep moving forward. We can’t take a timeout.”

And as Cohn put it, everyone is replaceable.

“We have a central service to do,” he said. “If a meteor falls and crushes our building, we’re confident that no matter what, tomorrow morning will come around and there will be a new shift and people taking the calls.”

Turnover leads to big police changes

With Springob and inspector Wildish (41 years) leading the way, the will be nearly 280 years light of experience when 2012 begins thanks to its nine retirements.

The department, however, was prepared for the mass turnover by starting the process to replace personnel years ago, according to Chief Brad Wentlandt, when the department began succession planning and determining future potential voids and needs. So as the 2011 retirement list grew longer and longer, the department was ready.

The planning has coincided with various levels of training that have prepared holdovers from transitioning into new positions with as little impact as possible, according to Wentlandt.

“There’s a lot of intangibles that come with experience, but what you can do is prepare that next person and get them to the level where you can minimize the impact of the transition,” Wentlandt said.

“You need people that are multi-faceted. You need people that can take on different roles based on the circumstances they are faced with. The nature of the job, things get thrown at us and we don’t always get to decide who specifically handles it. You have to have people who are cross-trained and can use their talents in different ways.”

The department’s detective mentoring program features a rotation of patrol officers who bounce in and out of the detective bureau for four-month stints, functioning as a junior detective. The program provides officers with invaluable detective experience and solidifies relationships between the two groups of employees.

The department also describes itself as proactive in regards to training. Employees regularly brush up on arson investigation procedures and interview and interrogation techniques, and some even take supervisory training.

Wentlandt admits the department realized the potential for large personnel loses in late 2010. In particular, the department had an inclination that its top two in command – Springob and Wildish – were strong retirement candidates given their combined 87-plus years of service. Those departures allowed Wentlandt to reorganize the department, including and eliminating a handful of other full-time positions.

“None of what I’ve done would have been possible had those (command) positions not vacated,” Wentlandt said. “If you have a plan that eliminates positions, it’s much easier to put that plan in place when it doesn’t mean laying people off.”

The departures also gave Wentlandt and the department an opportunity to take a closer look at what it does well, and what needs improvement, areas he believes his reorganization plan addresses and shores up.

But replacing nearly three centuries of experience, no matter how prepared you are or how solid your plan is, is no easy task.

“It’s a huge loss. These folks are going to be missed,” Wentlandt said. “You can’t replace the intangible experience and the contacts and relationships that the detectives and supervisors have made over the years. … When our 20-year detective leaves, all of the contacts and relationships he’s built leave with him.”

David Cotey December 14, 2011 at 04:12 PM
Do you think one department will suffer more than another because of this?
Jeff Klass December 14, 2011 at 05:10 PM
This should be celebrated at every level. Hard to imagine that these entrenched government workers have not just been biding their time for years now. Government in itself is wildly inefficient, and that only grows over time. This give Greenfield a chance to start fresh, with innovative new ideas. Add in the new tools brought by Act 10, and you're likely to see a streamlined, efficient greenfield government going forward. How is that a bad thing?
Dustin Block December 14, 2011 at 05:36 PM
Challenge for city managers to maintain service with this loss of experience.
robert heule December 14, 2011 at 11:25 PM
Early retirement is a safety net from the terror of Act 10
Ann December 15, 2011 at 01:18 AM
@Jeff - can't wait till you need a service from the city and have to wait for it - karma is has a way of coming around. Greenfield is going to suffer with this - the police now don't have enough manpower on the streets - the main throughfares through this town are freeways - don't read alot about speeders being stopped now do you.
Derek December 15, 2011 at 01:26 PM
@Jeff - you're exactly right. Good riddance! Those darn public employees have been bankrupting the city! Then again, they do respond when your stuff is stolen or your child is victimized and when your bank is robbed....And, when you're having chest pain, or you wake up in the middle of the night and smell smoke, who do you call? Personally I'm grateful that all those experienced cops and firemen are leaving. I feel a lot better knowing the rookies are going to be putting out the house fires and interviewing the guy who raped a child. You sound like the kind of guy who is the first one to complain when your street isn't plowed 10 minutes after the last flake falls, or when a car drives down your street five miles over the speed limit. When you move into a cabin in the woods and don't ever use any police, fire or public works service, then start complaining....otherwise.....
Russ Spahn December 15, 2011 at 10:23 PM
Very nice article David. I would like to thank all the retirees from the City of Greenfield; not just those of 2011 but all those who came before. A public employee is not often recognized for the sacrifices they make for the public they serve. I would encourage each public employee who has retired to ignore the ramblings of fools who don't understand because they have not made those same sacrifices that you have. Today more than ever, being a public employee and retiree is more difficult than ever. I have never seen such a low period on our State's history for public employees, The inexcusable ridicule is uncalled for and has been extremely hurtful for the retirees and their families. I once again commend you and would like to wish all of you reading this a Merry Christmas. Any and all other readers who think you know what these public employees are going through; I wish you a Merry Christmas as well because I won't submit to your verbal abuse and treatment of me and all other public employees, retired or still making the daily sacrifice for our public.
Frances Ziegler December 16, 2011 at 12:53 AM
Jobs have been eliminated from the City of Greenfield since 2009. Now that employees no longer have anything to look forward to for their hard work, THEY have decided to eliminate themselves from the city. Where was a post like this when the city was eliminating jobs? These also were people who had longevity; but their jobs were ELIMINATED. Didn't help the taxpayers, did it?
Frances Ziegler December 16, 2011 at 12:57 AM
You certainly said this well, Russ. Thank you.
robert heule December 16, 2011 at 03:32 AM
Happy birthday Bill of Rights 220th
The Big Cat December 16, 2011 at 04:27 AM
Boy, Jeff is spot on. Now let's get on with saving the non-government working taxpayer some money. This is great news. There is no negative to it. We must watch our elected officails now to see if they take advantage of the tools Governor Walker gave us to save money, or if they are no better than workers that jumped ship.
The Big Cat December 16, 2011 at 04:31 AM
The fact is, you have no idea of the hard work and financial hardship the non-government worker faces day to day. And they can't just quit and collect a fat pension with health benefits like yourself. And the sad part is, you don't even appreciate it. We are better off without you, so at least everyone comes up a winner.
Russ Spahn December 16, 2011 at 05:06 AM
Tony (no last name): You are clearly a common representative of the private sector. You make comments based on your own personal assumptions. The fact is, I do know the hard ships that many people have endured in the private sector. Many of my family and close friends have faced some very difficult times. I am very sensitive to their basic needs and strifes during this difficult economic time. The fat pension that you speak of is a pension that i worked and saved for over the past 40 years of my career. It is certainly not fat, but I am grateful for the sacrifices that i've made throughout my career to even have a pension. And believe me, I am grateful for my pension and I do appreciate it. You say that you are better off without me. Again a typical response for an uninformed and poorly educated resident who truly doesn't understand the work and planning that many of us have done in our careers to make the City a better place for our citizens to live, even the narrow minded thinkers like yourself Tony. I don't know you except for the simple words that you wrote in this blog. From these words, its clear that I don't care to know you. As for me, my record and the progress I made for the City is a matter of record. I am proud of my life's accomplishments. I won't change your mind about public employees in this blog, you already made that clear. The fact is that private and public employees have, and will struggle together during this difficult time.
robert heule December 16, 2011 at 02:29 PM
Tony, I sympathize with you and many other private sector workers. However, Walker's "Wisconsin Is Open for Business Policy" will give private sector employers the right the to abuse you more than ever. Your wages may be frozen and your pension, if you have one may soon be taken away. The Wisconsin pension fund is generally self funded because of wise investment strategy. The Wisconsin Investment Board is known to be the best in the U.S. if not in the world. The alleged rip-off of the taxpayer for public pensions is a fallacy. Don't be victims of the bull---- from the Tea Party types, many of whom didn't even know about public employee compensation until " Walkerism" raised its ugly head.

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