Akey is new Merrill City Administrator
Merrill takes a new approach to staffing
BY TINA L. SCOTT
Effective Jan. 1, 2024, Rod Akey of Merrill became the new City Administrator for the City of Merrill. Akey had been serving as Interim co-City Administrator, sharing the duties of the position with Merrill Police Chief Corey Bennett since October 2022, following the retirement of Merrill’s former City Administrator. Now, he will officially assume the role full time and Bennett will likely be relieved to go back to having “just” one job as Police Chief.
Along with his permanent new role, Akey will also continue as Public Works Director/City Engineer. He’s going to have a long list of titles behind his name.
The best person for the job was already a City employee
When Dave Johnson retired in October 2022, an Ad Hoc Committee was formed to look at the options for filling the City Administrator position, Mayor Steve Hass explained. The Council appointed Akey and Bennett as Interim co-City Administrators as they explored how to recruit someone to fill the vacated role.
Early on in the process Public Administration Associates made a presentation to the committee advising that the cost of recruiting for a new City Administrator would cost at least $50,000-$60,000, Mayor Hass said.
As time moved on with Akey and Bennett meeting the needs of the position on a day-to-day basis, the committee considered whether the best person for the job might already be a City employee.
“We decided to stay in-house with the Administrator’s position,” Mayor Hass said. “Rod and Corey have both proven to be very valuable in that position/role, working together. And Rod stepped up to the plate and said he’d like to throw his hat in the ring.”
With more than a year of watching Akey’s performance in the interim role, they already knew what they could expect from him in the role, and the decision was an easy one for the committee and the City Council. It also saved the City of Merrill considerable money.
By filling the position in-house, the City saved more than $50,000 in recruitment expenses and then some. “We did save that amount of money by not going that route [doing an outside recruitment search],” Hass said. “We also don’t have to pay moving expenses.”
A creative approach to staffing needs
Overall, the City is taking a more creative approach to balancing their staffing needs, especially for critical positions, Hass and Akey explained.
“We are moving in the right direction,” Hass said. “Rod will still maintain the City Engineering position, but we are hiring an Engineering Assistant position.”
This will result in additional savings for the City. Essentially eliminating a City Administrator’s salary–since Akey will serve as both City Administrator and City Engineer–and then adding a new Engineering Assistant position, should net the City around $60,000 in savings, he said, as opposed to hiring a new City Administrator and also continuing to have a separate Public Works Director/City Engineer.
The Engineering Assistant position will offload about 75% of his engineering workload, Akey projects. “And we do have Dustin Bonack and Gabe Steinagel,” he said, referring to the Superintendents of the Street Department and Water Utility, respectively. “They’ve been doing a very good job.” That takes the pressure off on the public works side of things, he said. In the realignment, he anticipates he will spend his time approximately “75% focusing on the City Administrator stuff and 25% the public works/engineering side.”
Putting the community’s interests first
Something a lot of residents probably don’t know? The City has been saving money since October 2022 by utilizing Akey and Bennett as Interim co-City Administrators because both served in this role while also continuing to serve in their original positions (City Engineer and Chief of Police)–and they did so without any additional compensation. “Corey and I didn’t ask for a penny more the whole time we were doing the fill-in stuff,” Akey said referring to the Interim role.
The two stepped up and did what needed to be done, putting the City–and the community’s interests– first, for more than 14 months.
In accepting the new position, Akey’s salary will increase about $1,500 a year going forward.
Well qualified for the position
In addition to his experience garnered in his role as Interim co-City Administrator since October 2022, Akey brings more than 30 years of engineering and management experience to the new position.
He attended the University of Wisconsin-Marathon and Madison, receiving a bachelor’s degree in Civil Environmental Engineering in 1993.
Since January 2016, Akey has served as the City Engineer/Public Works Director for the City of Merrill. Responsibilities in this role included overseeing the Merrill Street Department, Water Utility, and Waste Water Utility, in addition to civil and commercial design, layout, and construction oversight; State of Wisconsin DNR permit compliance for storm water; and assisting with Tax Incremental District (TID) project coordination and RDA project development.
Prior to taking this position, Akey was a private consulting engineer operating Akey Engineering Service since February 2002, providing civil and commercial design, layout, and construction oversight for state, county, township, and private construction projects and assisting with local, state, and DNR permit compliance.
Akey’s prior experience also includes training with the State of Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) District 7 in Rhinelander; six years as a resident engineer for Black Construction, Inc. in Kempster, Wis.; and three years as an engineering technician for the Lincoln County Highway Department in Merrill. Duties in those roles included construction survey, layout and design for state, local, county and private projects; job cost analysis; bid preparation and analysis; job and machinery budget cost analysis; construction project estimating; layout and management oversight for construction projects; construction project estimating; performing gravel tests; completing permits for operations; and even operating machinery and plowing snow for Lincoln County when needed.
Akey is accredited with the State of Wisconsin and maintains a Professional Engineering (PE) license with the state which includes 30 hours of continuing education every 2 years.
Engineering Assistant opening
The City is currently recruiting for the open Engineering Assistant position. The requirements? “A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with the ability to get a state job, State of Wisconsin PE within four years or so. We’re looking for somebody probably coming right out of college,” Akey said.
Other positions are also evolving
The City is taking a more creative, integrated approach to meeting personnel needs in all areas. “We have done a few other things as far as combining, like an Administrative Assistant from the Water Utility is going to be at the Street Department, and she’s still going to be doing some of the Water Utilities work. So we’re trying to find areas to save money,” Akey said.
“We really have to start looking at–not just what’s easy,” he said. “You know, we got a job open, so let’s not [just automatically] replace that person. We have to look over the whole City [City of Merrill personnel] and see what makes sense.”
“You know, all we have left is personnel [expense] to cut,” Akey said. “As far as our expenses going, we can’t raise taxes more than our new growth. We can’t just raise taxes like the school was able to do [just recently when the state changed the school’s levy tax guidelines]. There’s state levy limits that were imposed [on City governments] back in 2011 from Act 10.” Looking at the big picture when vacancies occur is one way they’re working to manage the money they have to work with.
The City is also looking at succession planning, especially as it relates to key positions and personnel. More on that to come.