* * *
Unrestricted use of a city-owned Chrysler Sebring — including gas — for official city business.
Free health insurance.
A salary of $90,184, a promised raise in six months and potential pay boosts for cost-of-living adjustments and performance bonuses.
Plus a promise of time off when the workday stretched out.
Gretna City Administrator Colleen Lawry's contract, negotiated last December with Mayor Sally McGuire and approved by the City Council, granted compensatory time for working weekends, holidays, during city emergencies — or whenever Lawry worked more than eight hours a day.
No other city administrator or county management official in Sarpy County has such a perk.
Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley, who recently audited the City of Gretna, criticized the contract, saying the salary and benefits were out of line for a suburban city of fewer than 5,000 residents.
“Just the magnitude of that contract was outrageous,” Foley said. “Giving Colleen Lawry a city take-home car and unrestricted use for travel, the opportunity to bill the City of Gretna for all these lavish meals, clothing, 100 percent paid health care. ... Who gets this kind of stuff anymore in government? Nobody gets that anymore.”
Lawry, however, did — before being fired last week and charged with felony theft of city funds. The actions came in the wake of the audit, when city officials discovered she had used a senior citizens lunch fund for personal purchases.
McGuire defended the contract terms as fair, given Lawry's increased job demands and expectations for the growing city, including redevelopment of Gretna's outlet mall.
“Is $90,000 out of line?” McGuire said Saturday. “I don't know. The city administrator runs every part of city government. They direct all personnel. They are responsible for all organization, all planning, all the boards, meeting agendas, commissions, all budgets and, in our case, economic development.”
McGuire said her only regret in the contract involved the unrestricted use of the city car. In hindsight, she said, she would have provided a monthly vehicle allowance, as La Vista and Papillion do for their city administrators.
Gretna City Attorney John Green said McGuire and Lawry negotiated the terms of the contract.
“I was not part of the negotiations, and I was told by one of them that this was standard stuff,” Green said.
He said he was told that the provision of a take-home car is “fairly standard for people at that level.”
But in Sarpy County, Bellevue City Administrator Dan Berlowitz is the only other local government leader with a take-home city vehicle.
Bellevue is the county's largest community — and the third-largest community in the state — and Berlowitz is allowed only “limited personal use” and must report the benefit as taxable income to the Internal Revenue Service, based on his contract.
Lawry's salary included a $20,000 raise in December, after her promotion to full-time city administrator, McGuire said. Until February 2011, Lawry was the city administrator, city clerk and city treasurer.
Lawry's raise also reflected her recent master's degree in business administration from Bellevue University and city manager accreditation from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, McGuire said.
McGuire said she researched a half-dozen other city managers' compensation packages, including cities smaller or of similar size, such as Ashland, Waverly and Seward (population 6,964), and much larger communities such as Papillion, La Vista (population 15,758) and Grand Island (population 48,520).
Lawry's contract guaranteed her annual raises of 3 percent to 5 percent and an annual cost-of-living increase if she awarded one to other city employees.
“Additionally, a performance bonus based on the results of the evaluation in an amount determined by the mayor and approved by the City Council may be awarded,” the contract states.
By contrast, none of the other government leaders in Sarpy gets an annual cost-of-living adjustment or performance bonus.
Lawry has the least amount of local government management experience and was managing the smallest government unit; Gretna is the only city in Sarpy County without its own police department.
Lawry's pay and benefits also appear generous based on a sampling of Nebraska cities of similar size outside Sarpy County.
“I don't know of any (Nebraska) city managers getting a performance bonus,” said Rod Storm, the longtime Blair administrator.
Storm said none of Blair's department heads receives compensatory time.
“Fifty- to 60-hour weeks is just the way it is,” said Storm, who makes $97,400. “We don't have comp time. Myself, the city clerk, the chief of police, the director of public works — we often put in 50 hours plus.”
In Wahoo, Melissa Harrell is the city administrator, clerk and treasurer and makes $71,500. She has handled city administrator duties since 2005.
She pays her own insurance premiums, does not get a take-home vehicle and hasn't had a raise in more than a year.
Nebraska City's administrator, Joseph Johnson, makes about $84,000, pays his own insurance premiums and does not have a take-home city car.
Plattsmouth City Administrator Erv Portis, in his fifth year of managing the Cass County seat, makes $92,881. Like Storm, Portis has about 20 years in city government management.
Portis pays his own health insurance premiums and is prohibited from getting a percentage raise higher than that given to his employees.
Seward City Administrator Brett Baker makes about $92,000, but his contract doesn't specify built-in raises. He receives free family health insurance and is allowed the use of a city vehicle for official city business but said he chose not to accept that.
Baker was the only other manager among those checked who qualifies for compensatory time.
John Albin, general counsel for the Nebraska Department of Labor, said managerial employees who work in government are not eligible to receive comp time under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
But unless the law prohibits it, an employer can draw up a contract that calls for anything, Albin said.
If employees are eligible for comp time under the law, the rules allow that time to be awarded on a weekly basis in excess of 40 hours, not for daily hours, Albin said.
Foley said his auditing staff found Lawry's contract “extraordinary” given the size of the community.
“I think it had the ‘wow factor,'” Foley said.
He said the contract was part of a broader problem of relaxed financial oversight by Gretna's mayor and City Council. He said Lawry took excessive out-of-state travel and had unsubstantiated expense claims approved by the City Council.
“This was a council that lost control of their responsibilities,” Foley said.
He pointed out several examples of questionable spending, such as when Lawry stayed two nights at a Holiday Inn in Lincoln last June during an economic development conference, even though Gretna is less than 30 minutes away.
When she stayed in Las Vegas and Milwaukee last year for work-related conferences, he said, she billed the city for meals in local restaurants, even when meals were provided at the events.
Foley placed the blame for Lawry's excesses on Gretna city officials.
“In some sense the council and Mayor McGuire almost looked at Colleen as their superior and their boss. The proper relationship is that they are her boss,” Foley said. “They were very trusting and not challenging Colleen on how she was spending money.
“They were clueless, definitely.”
World-Herald staff writer Jeff Robb contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: