By Ivan Raconteur
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN Discussion of pay increases for elected department heads led to split votes and friction between Wright County Board members Tuesday.
The board approved 2.5 percent pay increases for County Attorney Tom Kelly, Sheriff Gary Miller, and Auditor Treasurer Bob Hiivala.
All of these increases were approved on 3-2 votes, with commissioners Jack Russek, Rose Thelen, and Elmer Eichelberg in favor, and Board Chair Pat Sawatzke and Commissioner Dick Mattson opposed.
“I hope you guys both get re-elected next year,” Russek commented after the attorney and sheriff raises were approved. “It’s sure a waste of time if you don’t, trying to be the heroes.”
Sawatzke said he voted against pay raises for other county employees, and he was going to vote against raises for department heads, as well.
Sawatzke said he had not planned to bring it up, but since the subject had come up, he said two years ago, the department heads didn’t want the same pay increase as other county employees, they wanted more.
“Everyone else got 2.5 percent (two years ago), but these guys wanted 7, 8, or 9 percent, and in they end, they about got that,” Sawatzke said. “Not only was it three times the percent of anybody else, but because they were the highest paid, in real dollars, it was four, five, or six times what anyone else got. Why not keep them at zero (increase) to be fair?”
“Wasn’t that part of them trying to be competitive with other counties?” Thelen asked.
“That was part of them suing the county,” Sawatzke replied.
He asked what other counties, such as Hennepin County, have to do with what goes on in Wright County.
“We can all use statistics to prove anything,” Sawatzke said.
The 2010 salaries for elected department heads are:
• Kelly: $116,533 plus an additional $4,809 “in recognition of the enhanced responsibilities he has for administering the city law enforcement contracts.”
• Miller: $110,109, plus an additional $3,577 “in recognition of the enhanced responsibilities he has for administering the city law enforcement contracts.”
• Hiivala: $110,109.
The board unanimously voted to keep the county commissioner salary the same for 2010, at $37,440.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we’d do it for ourselves (vote for zero increase),” Sawatzke said. “I just wish we had the guts to extend it out to someone else.”
The board agreed to keep the per diem rate for board members at $50 on a 4-1 vote, with Russek, Thelen, Sawatzke, and Eichelberg in favor, and Mattson opposed.
Mattson said he had been against increasing the per diem from $40 to $50 in the first place, and still thinks it should go back to $40.
Budget changes discussed
The board discussed several changes to the 2010 budget prior to approving the final levy.
County Coordinator Dick Norman said the Supreme Court recently ruled against counties being able to charge “pay per stay” charges for pre-sentence inmates. This will result in a $114,000 loss of revenue for Wright County.
The county attorney’s office is not renewing its contract with the City of Annandale, which will result in a $39,322 loss of revenue.
Sawatzke said the number of residents who attended the recent truth in taxation hearing may have been a record, which he said is an indication of the state of the economy.
He suggested some areas where the board could make additional budget cuts, and thereby reduce the levy for 2010.
Sawatzke said the professional services budget was $450,000 in 2008, and $168,000 was used.
In 2009, the budget was increased to $596,000, and $143,000 has been used through 11 months.
Sawatzke said the site improvements-courthouse budget was $300,000 in 2008, and $199,000 was spent. The budget was increased to $520,000 in 2009, and $84,000 has been spent with less than one month remaining in the year.
Sawatzke said the levy could be reduced by $22,500 due to expected income from sale of a tax forfeit property.
“We don’t have a big reserve to draw on,” Russek said.
Sawatzke said the county’s reserve is where the state auditor recommends it should be.
Hiivala confirmed that the county’s reserve is at the lower end of the recommended range.
Mattson suggested putting off replacement of squad cars for sheriff’s deputies for one year, which he said would save $490,000.
“Everyone is driving a new truck,” Mattson said. “there’s not a vehicle out there (in the county fleet) older than two years old.”
Norman said if the board is contemplating reducing the sheriff’s budget, the board should have the sheriff present, because he is an elected department head and has the right to appeal his budget.
Russek objected to what he called “chipping and cutting” the budget after the fact, and said the board should wait until next year to make cuts.
Russek said the budget was adjusted during previous budget meetings, and department heads “went home happy with their budgets,” and now, the board was contemplating cuts without the department heads’ knowledge.
“We had the largest crowd (at the truth in taxation hearing) since I have been here,” Sawatzke said. “The process includes inviting input. If we only do what we were going to do before they (the taxpayers) came in, we are saying that their input wasn’t valid.”
The board approved changes, including reducing the sheriff’s training budget by $8,000 (due to training that will be done within the department, thus reducing costs, that was approved earlier in the meeting). The board also reduced the professional services budget by $80,000, and the site improvements budget by $50,000.
The board also reduced the budget by $22,500 due to the sale of a tax forfeit property.
The board authorized Norman and Hiivala to make the final adjustments to the budget based on those cuts.
Final levy approved
The final levy amount after cuts was $48,605,215. This is a 6.65 percent increase from 2009.
The tax rate increased from 33 percent to 36 percent.