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Wright County attorney threatens litigation, gets a raise – again
Dec. 17, 2012
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By Ivan Raconteur
HJ Editor

BUFFALO, MN – Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, the Wright County Board reluctantly approved a pay raise for County Attorney Tom Kelly Tuesday, rather than going to court.

As it does each year, the board considered compensation for elected department heads during Tuesday’s meeting.

Commissioner Pat Sawatzke presented a summary of the Nov. 20 personnel committee of the whole meeting, during which department heads’ compensation was discussed.

During the committee meeting, Kelly presented documents to support why he was requesting a raise.

Kelly requested a 3 percent ($3,728) raise for 2013, and noted he will request a 1 percent raise for 2014.

County Coordinator Dick Norman noted that Kelly’s salary for 2012 was set at $119,466, plus an additional $4,809 for administering city prosecution contracts (for a total of $124,255).

Sawatzke read a paragraph from Kelly’s letter to the board, which stated his request for a $3,728 raise would cost the county less than litigation.

Sawatzke asked Kelly, “Are you saying if you don’t get that dollar amount, you will litigate?” Kelly responded, “Yes.”

Norman stated that three bargaining units have settled contracts with the county. All of the settlements state “zero increases this year, zero increases next year, and a 1 percent increase in 2014.”

Norman said he presented this to Kelly as a fact, and noted Kelly is being paid 10 percent more than any other county employee.

Kelly said he “did not go to law school to be paid $30,000 less than comparable positions.”

Kelly said his request for an increase is not unfair to other county officials as he has been employed by the county for 29 years and they do not have his duties, experience, responsibilities, or qualifications. He said giving him a raise should not be predicated on negotiations with bargaining units of which he is not a member.

Sawatzke said he would not be ordered by the county attorney what amount to authorize for his salary. The board has authority for setting the budget. Sawatzke said Kelly is “playing outside his role by demanding an increase or threatening to sue.”

Commissioner Dick Mattson said he was very upset by Kelly’s request.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Sawatzke said he would be voting against the increase.

He said Kelly is the highest-paid county employee, and other employees are getting no increase. Sawatzke described Kelly’s request as unjust and unfair.

Sawatzke said he understood that some commissioners would be voting “yes” to avoid litigation.

Commissioner Jack Russek said he was opposed to spending $15,000 to $20,000 (on litigation) to save $2,000 to $3,000 (on a raise for Kelly), when the county would likely lose in the end. He said approving the raise would be the cheapest route for the county.

Board Chair Rose Thelen said Kelly’s request is justified.

The board approved a 2 percent raise for Kelly, bringing his total salary to $126,740, on a 3-2 vote, with Russek, Thelen, and Commissioner Elmer Eichelberg in favor, and Sawatzke and Mattson opposed.

Familiar territory

This is not the first time Kelly has threatened litigation in order to get a salary increase.

In December 2007, Kelly’s salary was $107,949.

During discussions regarding his salary for 2008, which took place during a personnel committee of the whole meeting, and continued during the Dec. 11, 2008 board meeting, the board recommended a salary increase of 2.75 percent for Kelly.

According to the minutes from that meeting, Kelly requested an increase of 7.45 percent.

After discussion, the majority of the committee recommended an increase of 2.75 percent.

During its Dec. 18, 2007 meeting, the board adopted a resolution setting Kelly’s 2008 salary at $110,910, an increase of $2,969 or 2.75 percent.

Kelly challenged the board’s decision.

The board later amended its offer.

The minutes of the Feb. 26, 2008 meeting show Russek made a motion to approve $4,582 in additional salary for Kelly in 2008 “as recognition of the enhanced responsibilities he has for providing attorney services in the city law enforcement contracts.”

Sawatzke said he would vote against the request, noting he felt the county started with a fair offer, and it was legally challenged by Kelly. Sawatzke added the board amended its offer to what he recalled was more than a 6.5 percent increase, which was also not accepted by Kelly. What Kelly was asking for was $500 more than the offer, and the other board members did not feel it was worth fighting for, according to Sawatzke.

Russek agreed with Sawatzke, but said it would cost the county $20,000 in court to save $500.

The motion carried 3-2 with Russek, Mattson, and Eichelberg in favor, and Sawatzke and then commissioner Karla Heeter opposed.

The original 2.75 percent increase, plus the additional $4,582, gave Kelly a net salary increase of 6.99 percent for 2008.

Other elected department heads

Regarding the other elected department heads, the board approved no increase for Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala, who is at the top of the salary range for his position at $112,862 annually.

Hiivala said he did not expect an increase this year, and only expects to get the same increase as his staff gets, and if they did not get an increase, he did not expect an increase.

The board approved a step increase for Sheriff Joe Hagerty, from step 8 (an annual salary of $109,045) to the top step, step 9, for an annual salary of $112,862. This is an increase of $3,817.

Board salaries remain the same for 2013

The board approved keeping the compensation for board members at $36,575 annually, noting that this amount has not increased since about 2008.

In addition to the regular salary, the board approved a per diem of $50, which board members receive for meeting attendance. This is the same amount as in 2012.

Levy for 2013 remains about the same

Sawatzke made one last attempt at blocking funding for a new $93,961 human resources director position, but he was unsuccessful.

Sawatzke made a motion to approve the proposed 2013 budget and levy, less the $93,961.

Thelen passed the gavel to acting chair Eichelberg so she could second the motion (in Wright County, the board chair is not permitted to make or second motions).

The motion failed 3-2, with commissioners Russek, Mattson, and Eichelberg opposed, and Sawatzke and Thelen in favor.

Russek said he thinks the county needs a personnel director, since it has 670 employees.

Thelen said she supports the position, but objected to the way it was introduced.

The board then approved a total certified levy of $50,548,134 on a 4-1 vote, with Sawatzke casting the only no vote. He said it is a good levy, and he only opposed it due to the personnel manager position.

However, due to some confusion, after the meeting was adjourned, Thelen re-convened the meeting, and the board rescinded the original motion, and approved a new motion certifying a total levy of $50,550,634. The adjusted levy was approved on a 4-1 vote with Sawatzke opposed.

The $23,385 reduction in the $50,574,019 preliminary levy approved in September was due to a reduction in the cost of the contract with the medical examiner.

The county’s total certified levy for 2012 was $50,574,019. The 2013 levy represents a decrease of $23,385, or about 0.046 percent.

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