MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele will ask a judge on Thursday, June 1st to block the County Board from reversing pay raises that he's given to several top staffers, the latest in a series of legal battles over the matter.
Abele has increased the salaries of 27 positions by a total of $185,301 per year, including a $54,000 raise for Health and Human Services Director Hector Colon, according to data from the Milwaukee County Comptroller's office. All of the staffers face a potential pay cut if the county board prevails in court on Thursday.
Taxpayer-funded legal fees are accumulating on both sides. The County Board has already spent close to $150,000 on outside lawyers, and supervisors have authorized an additional $50,000. Abele said Wednesday that he didn't know how much taxpayers were spending on his lawyers.
Last week, the board voted 16-1 to cut the pay of all 27 staffers back to levels that the board previously approved.
Abele plans to veto the resolution, though the board has the votes to override him at a special meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday. At the court hearing set for 8:30 a.m., Abele is asking Circuit Court Judge John DiMotto to block the board from acting.
Abele said Wednesday that he's concerned his staffers will find other jobs if their pay gets cut.
"I need good people," he said. "I need the best people. The county deserves it. And we don’t keep the best people by making a game of their salaries."
Abele increased the salaries of four of his five top department heads by at least $8,000 apiece. Colon's raise is by far the highest, and prompted the lawsuit from County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb.
"Most people think $50,000 is a decent salary -- $50,000 raises are unheard of," Lipscomb said. "That's just unacceptable."
In April, DiMotto ruled on Lipscomb's lawsuit by determining that the county board has the power to set pay ranges for county workers. Abele can set pay within those ranges and promote employees to other positions without board input, the judge ruled.
Separate from Thursday's request to block the county board from cutting staffers' pay, Abele has announced that he plans to appeal the April ruling.
Wednesday, Abele defended the pay raises that he's granted to top staffers, including Colon, by arguing that the workers have benefited the county.
"Damn right, we are getting incredible value out of that team," Abele said. "I’m always going to follow the law. But within that, I’m going to do everything I can to hang on to the most talented people I’ve got."
In one of the most extreme examples, a crime analyst in the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office would have her salary cut by 25 percent, from $61,000 to $45,463. Lipscomb said he didn't expect such a cut to happen, because the board could approve raising the pay range for such a position based on the market value of the job.
"That's the anomoly," Lipscomb said of the issue.
County Board Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic proposed that would force the county employees to pay back the raises, but supervisors ultimately defeated her amendment last week. Lipscomb said it would've opened up the county to more lawsuits from the affected workers.