Ziehler retires after 33 years in West Allis

June 3, 2014

West Allis — The man who has seen West Allis through its ups and downs for the last three decades and played a huge role in keeping its city services humming is now retiring.

He's Paul Ziehler, city administrative officer/clerk/treasurer, and you may have bumped into him at parades or just about any city event. He was at them all. And if you spoke you probably noticed his subtle but very quick sense of humor.

"He has the driest sense of humor I've ever seen in a person," said Alderman Gary Barczak. West Allis Mayor Dan Devine said, "Sometimes he cracks a joke and you don't even realize it because you don't expect it."

Ziehler hails from Ohio, but he loves the West Allis that has been his work and home for 33 years.

"I like the down-to-earth nature of the city," he said. "People are friendly and they don't put on airs. They're genuine."

Ziehler started as director of administration and finance and was the one who hunted out money to pay for programs the Common Council wanted to pursue.

Alderman Tom Lajsic remembers voting with the rest of the council to hire Ziehler.

"He was a bright, young individual," Lajsic said.

And Ziehler came on just as the city's taxbase was collapsing with the demise of manufacturing giants such as Allis-Chalmers that was only one of many manufacturing powerhouses within the city's borders.

In 1970, 20 percent of the city's taxbase was manufacturing, today it's 1 percent, Ziehler said.

In those dark days, the young Ziehler felt the city must go on the offensive to overcome the devastating body blow.

"We needed to get aggressive," Ziehler remembered in an interview last week. "God helps he who helps himself."

So Ziehler suggested that the city start a community development authority, a Community Development Department and hire an energetic development director and staff.

"A CDA and Department of Development could coordinate planning, housing and economic development," he said. The council agreed.

The result has been millions of dollars of redevelopment and hardly any derelict factory buildings left.

"Some of what we did might have been done anyway but not with the large comprehensive and excellent approach," Ziehler said.

Devine said the CDA and the Community Development Department were both crucial keys to the city rebuilding itself. In just the last three weeks, the addition 1,000 new jobs coming to the city has been announced, he said.

"The entire governmental body has been aggressive in thinking outside the box and the CDA and Development Department have been integral to that whole process," Devine said.

And when the city-owned West Allis Memorial Hospital was nearing what some feared would be its demise, Ziehler worked tirelessly to save it, said Paul Murphy, currently municipal judge who was an alderman for 19 years, about 11 of them as Common Council president.

Ziehler hammered out an arrangement with Aurora Health Care to take over hospital operations, and was in the forefront of the fight to keep its emergency room open and to keep the hospital as a place where mothers could have their babies, Murphy said.

The energetic Ziehler didn't take a huge hike in city liability insurance lying down, either. He went out an created a statewide insurance entity for cities and villages, Murphy said.

"We've saved hundreds of thousands of dollars" as a result, Murphy said.

Keeping a sharp eye on every dollar has been Ziehler's forte, several city officials said. The West Allis bond rating is one of the best in the state, said Alderman Michael May, and Ziehler has a lot to do with that.

"Paul is very good with those budgets," May said.

After being hired as director of administration and finance in 1980, Ziehler was made city administrative officer in 1989 by a council that recognized the work he was already doing. In 2003, the council added the jobs of clerk and treasurer.

Ziehler has worked with six mayors, but the job has never been the same.

"Elected mayors had varying degrees of knowledge of administration and finance," Lajsic said. "Some were very strong administrators, some had no experience or management skills or the ability to deal with employees or human resources rules. That's where Paul came in."

Devine agreed: "With the strengths or weaknesses of the mayor, he almost has to complement them."

During Ziehler's tenure, the city consolidated three neighborhood libraries into a new central library, built a police and court center, did a major renovation of the West Allis Farmers Market and renovated all three fire stations.

And through it all, Ziehler gave aldermen sound information on which to make their decisions, aldermen said.

"He always presented both sides of the story," Lajsic said. "He never tried to hide anything."

"He's very much a man of integrity," Devine said.

And when debate got tense, Ziehler was always a calming influence.

"He has a knack for calming down a situation and finding a common ground," Murphy said.

And when it came to keeping city services humming, Ziehler has what May called a humble leadership style.

"When things go well, he shares the glory with others. If things go bad, he'll take it on himself," May said. "He put his heart and soul into the city."

Ziehler's excellence was recognized by the distinguished Public Policy Forum that gave him the Award for Individual Excellence in 1999. He also was named Public Administrator of the Year for 1999 and 2002 by the Milwaukee chapter of the American Society of Public Administrators.

"He is very dedicated," Alderman Vince Vitale said. Ziehler spent long hours making sure everything was done properly, he said.

"He went way above the call of duty," said former alderman James Sengstock.

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