Waupaca Public Works director seeks engineering degree
By Angie Landsverk
The Waupaca Common Council voted to reimburse Director of Public Works Justin Berrens the cost of tuition as he seeks a master’s degree in environmental engineering, but with conditions.
The council voted 6-4 earlier this month to reimburse Berrens 100 percent of his tuition costs for courses when he receives an A in them, 75 percent of the cost when he receives a B and nothing if he receives a grade of a C or less.
Alan Kjelland, Paul Mayou, Dave Peterson, Scott Purchatzke, Eric Olson and Chuck Whitman voted in favor of the motion, while Lori Chesnut, Steve Hackett, Paul Hagen and Jillian Petersen voted against it.
“The expectation was clearly set out for him to do, seek this, which he is doing,” said Mayou, who sat on last year’s panel to interview applicants for the position, after former director John Edlebeck resigned.
Last August, the council unanimously approved Mayor Brian Smith’s appointment of Berrens to the position.
Berrens, a native of Waupaca, began his job duties on Sept. 1.
He expressed an interest in obtaining his principal engineer certification.
In the conditional offer of employment to Berrens, the city said it is not a mandatory requirement of the job but a desired qualification the city encouraged him to pursue.
The city’s job description for the position recommends engineering certification as part of the position requirements.
The offer to Berrens noted the city offers a tuition reimbursement program to employees.
In a Feb. 2 memo to City Administator Henry Veleker, Berrens said, “As we discussed, I’d like to pursue an engineering degree via UW-Madison’s online master’s program. The environmental engineering program is 100 percent online and can be pursued while working full time.”
Berrens graduated from Lawrence University with a degree in geology and came to his position in the city with more than eight years of experience in civil engineering with the firm K. Singh & Associates.
On March 23, Berrens learned he was admitted to UW-Madison’s Graduate School Civic and Environmental Engineering program for this fall. The degree requires 30 credits.
The tuition cost is currently $1,300 per credit and will be almost $40,000 over a three-year period.
Berrens will pay the costs up front, and there will not be an impact to the city’s budget this year.
He also agrees to remain employed with the city for five years beyond his anticipated graduation date, which is the summer of 2019. If he does not do so, he has to pay back 100 percent of the city’s costs.
The city has offered this benefit to employees since 2001.
The draft agreement which went before the council this month included tuition reimbursement for any classes where he earned a grade of C or better.
Members of the council disagreed on whether the city should reimburse him fully for the costs.
Hackett said Berrens is doing a great job, but he does not think the city should have to pay $40,000 for the courses.
Veleker said the city was interested in hiring a certified engineer but was unable to land one.
“He (Berrens) had the desire to get his P.E. I don’t think it’s unusual in the private sector,” Veleker said. “I think if we make this investment, we will get a deeply committed employee.”
It was Kjelland who brought up the idea of tailoring the tuition reimbursement to incentives, which the council ultimately approved.
“I was on the interview panel. We talked with Justin about engineering and said we would support his efforts to achieve that. He is doing so. I think we should support him,” Mayou said.
Purchatzke said he is not dissuading Berrens from doing so but believed there should be more of a split in the cost.
Petersen noted the city will likely review his compension after he receives his master’s degree.
Berrens was hired at an annual salary of $77,808.
During his one-year probationary period, his initial salary was 80 percent of that amount.
Last month, the council voted to increase his probationary period to 90 percent of his annual salary for the remainder of his probationary period.
“We hired him as our public works director. We paid him a little less and increased his probation a bit from 80 percent to 90 percent,” said Mayor Brian Smith. “I also sat on that committee (interview panel). I agree. The emphasis was we wanted to see him continue his education.”
The mayor said there are times the city needs a principal engineer.
“Once he’s a P.E., it can also save the city money,” Smith said.