County board mulls rescinding pay hikes

Published 10:41 am Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Former county commissioner candidate Dan Vermilyea got the Mower County board’s attention Tuesday morning.

Vermilyea asked the commissioners to rescind a 3 percent pay increase they gave themselves in January.

Doing this would show a “good faith effort” by the county commissioners as they address potential county budget cuts, including jobs.

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Vermilyea also said it would show a “leadership effort,” when they consider reducing or eliminating county employees’ jobs.

Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, was quick to defend the commissioners. According to Oscarson, an unidentified commissioner has already proposed the county commissioners cancel their pay increase.

Vermilyea said he serves on the Mower County Extension Committee, which is reviewing the proposed program cuts to the Extension department.

The Extension Committee is only an advisory committee to the county board, but the potential budget cuts proposed — including reducing staff and eliminating 4-H programming or charging 4-Hers to participate, has Vermilyea obviously worried.

Oscarson defended the list of potential budget cuts announced March 4. He called it a “fluid document” or merely a work in progress about which no action has been proposed and no action taken.

Rescinding their own pay increases could help improve the commissioners’ public image, according to Vermilyea.

“The public has a perception about the pay raises you gave yourselves and the job cuts you are proposing,” said Vermilyea and that perception isn’t good, according to the citizen.

Dick Lang, Fourth District county commissioner, said rescinding the pay hike is under consideration by the finance committee on which he and Tim Gabrielson, First District, serve.

“It’s in the works,” Lang said. “They told us to look at everything on the table, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Like municipalities, counties have been forced to reduce spending to help make up for lost Country Program Aid and Local Government Aid monies in face of the $4.8-billion state budget deficit.

When one county board raises elected officials’ pay while other counties are struggling financially, that sends “mixed signals” to taxpayers, according to Vermilyea.

However, it appears the Mower County pay hikes for officials may have come under suspicion the moment after they were approved.

Tim Gabrielson, who defeated Vermilyea in the First District county commission race last Nov. 4, 2008, said rescinding the pay hike “has been talked about since it happened.”

When it happened at the start of the year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty singled out the Mower County Board of Commissioners for being insensitive to the state’s budget deficit and his own call for frugality among local units of government, during a depressed economy.

The 2009 salary adjustments approved by the county board included:

Mower County Commissioners: 2008 salary: $24,200. New salary, $24,926.

Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen: 2008 salary, $83,286. New salary, $89,093.

Mower County Recorder Sue Davis: 2008 salary, $66,057. New salary, $68,039.

Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi: 2008 salary, $83,083. New salary: $87,635.

Mower County Auditor-Treasurer Doug Groh: 2008 salary, $64,038. New salary, $68,181.

Shortly after the pay hikes were approved, citizens visited county board meetings to express their anger.

Now that the county staff is proposing a wide-range of budget cuts, that includes merging the auditor/treasurer, recorder and assessor offices, a four-day work week, eliminating programs and services and reducing the work force, the personal pay hikes have attracted new attention.

When the commissioners set salaries for elected officials, they are following the dictates of state statues.

The reason for the pay hikes for all elected officials given by the commissioners and county coordinator Oscarson was “to keep officials’ salaries in line with those pay hikes given the county’s bargaining units,” who also received 3 percent annual hikes in their three-year contracts.”

Vermilyea continued to point out the unintentional double standard that seems to have been set by the commissioners: i.e., pay raises for some, pay cuts or job elimination for others.

Dave Tollefson, Fifth District county commissioner and chairman of the county board, listened and then took the lead toward a solution.

“We’re going to meet again March 15. Why can’t we put it on the agenda to discuss it at that time?” Tollefson asked his fellow board members.

The four-county commissioners present for Tuesday’s meeting agreed by consensus to consider rescinding their own salaries at next Monday’s meeting.

There was no mention of other elected officials’ salaries.

Be it resolved

Also Tuesday morning, the commissioners unanimously agreed to ask local legislators to introduce and support legislation to allow the Mower County Auditor/Treasurer and Recorder to be appointed by the county commissioners.

The measure is part of a cost-cutting, office-streamlining effort that would involve combing the auditor/treasurer and recorder positions into the assessor’s office and creating a new “land records” department.

The effort is similar to one made in 2002, when the commissioners originally sought to merge the then-elected offices of County Auditor and County Treasurer.

Part of the process then, as well as now, is to put the question on ballots to ask citizens if they approve of the merger.

The question was rejected by Mower County voters, but the commissioners went ahead and combined the two offices.

If local legislators are able to push legislation through the 2009 session, the new question could be placed on 2010 election year ballots.

Gabrielson made the resolution to request legislation for both the auditor/treasurer and recorder positions to be filled by appointment. Lang seconded it. All four commissioners voted “Aye” (Second District County Commissioner Ray Tucker remains hospitalized due to a brain aneurysm, and surgery)