The Hennepin County Board has declined to raise its pay for the next two years, saving the county a projected $40,000. But at least one commissioner, who voted against the move, said it was a political ploy in an election year.
The motion was offered a few weeks before Election Day by Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who was facing a serious challenge in his bid for re-election. McLaughlin told his colleagues it was the fiscally responsible thing to do, given the county's current budget constraints.
Commissioner Mike Opat cast the lone dissenting vote, saying the vote wasn't even necessary because each commissioner has to submit a letter to accept a raise to ensure transparency and personal accountability.
"When I was first elected, commissioners used to play games with their salaries. Zero in election years, larger increases to catch up in other years," said Opat, who has served on the board since 1993.
In protest, Opat said, he started the system of tying board raises to salary increases for county employees, to be awarded a year later. "That totally transparent system was in place for more than a dozen years, until the recent vote. An unfortunate return to the past," he said in an interview.
McLaughlin said that he had been considering proposing a board pay freeze for several months. As reasons to reject the pay bump, he cited the loss of 200 human services division employees through attrition, the development of a huge homeless camp in south Minneapolis, the ongoing affordable housing crisis and a 5.25 percent property tax increase.
The board also froze the salaries of County Attorney Mike Freeman and outgoing Sheriff Rich Stanek.
"It was time for the elected officials to take a vote to reflect our concern and understanding for the problems people are having. We get paid a decent amount of money for the work we do," said McLaughlin, who was defeated Tuesday by Angela Conley after nearly 28 years on the board.
Hennepin County commissioners make $113,566 a year. In comparison, Ramsey County commissioners make $92,423 annually and Anoka County commissioners make $67,488.
The board rejected a 2.5 percent pay increase, determined by what increase was negotiated for the county's 9,000 employees. For 2019 and 2020, that raise would have been about $3,000 each year. The board last froze its pay in 2013.
State law requires that commissioners adopt a pay raise before the general election. As board chairwoman, Commissioner Jan Callison is required to bring the pay increase request to the board.
She raised the matter at the Oct. 25 board meeting, followed by McLaughlin's motion to decline the pay raise. Callison said labor negotiations usually conclude in the fall, giving the board a short window before they have to vote on their raise.
"There was a fairly robust discussion whether it was appropriate to take a salary increase," said Callison. "We felt it wasn't appropriate to take the adjustment."
Commissioner Debbie Goettel said her colleagues had been "talking in the hallways" for several weeks about possibly not accepting a salary adjustment. She wasn't concerned about the timing of the vote, saying it made a statement to county employees that the board cares.
"We are spending more money on addiction and mental health services, and we asking departments to do more with less," she said. "We can forgo a raise for a couple of years."