Counties' salaries follow no formula

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2008 - 7:28 AM

There's no consistent system for determining top officials' pay from one county to the next in Minnesota. So counties are on their own when they set salaries.

The Anoka County attorney will be paid a higher salary than the Hennepin County attorney next year. Yet Hennepin County commissioners will be paid $60,000 more in salary than Sherburne County commissioners, who meet just 30 miles away.

"If you're looking for a consistent way of setting county officials' salaries, it's not there," said Sherburne County human resources Director Roxanne Chmielewski. "There is no formula."

With unemployment and foreclosures rising and the state looking at a $5.2 billion deficit over the next two-plus years, metro area counties face a new dilemma: Even with caseloads rapidly increasing, how do counties set and justify salaries for their top officials? Many counties in and around the metro area will decide officials' salaries at county board meetings Tuesday.

"I got an e-mail from a constituent who was hopping mad about the raises we gave, basically asking, 'What were you people thinking?'" Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah said after the Anoka County Board voted to give nonunion county employees up to a 4 percent salary increase in 2009.

Sivarajah, one of two commissioners who voted against the increase, said, "It just doesn't feel right when the people we ask to pay our wages are hurting, losing jobs, losing health insurance, losing homes. For government to assume that we can move right along just doesn't seem right to me."

Sherburne County already has set its budget. While the salaries of the county attorney and sheriff will increase 3 percent next year, the commissioners voted to keep their salaries at the 2008 level, $37,653. Sherburne County, unlike many counties that offer higher salaries, also pays its commissioners a $50-a-day per diem.

With a population of 86,308, Sherburne is one of the smaller counties in the metro area. But Elk River is just 30 miles from Minneapolis, where Hennepin County commissioners will receive a 3.4 percent increase in 2009, raising their salaries to $97,080. Across the river, Ramsey County commissioners will make $82,400 in salary next year, with the chairman of the board earning $84,975.

Contrast those commissioners' salaries with these 2008 salaries for other county commissioners: Wright County, $35,636; Stearns County, $35,500; Benton County, $27,823; Chisago County, $27,419 and Isanti County $26,226.

"In Sherburne County, we're going to face some tough budget decisions and some employees will be laid off," Chmielewski said. "The commissioners wanted to set an example, to be leaders."

Noting that county caseloads increase during hard times, Sivarajah suggested that more money targeted for pay increases go to workers in the trenches and that Anoka County officials earning salaries of $80,000 or more not be given raises next year. Though discussed before the board, her suggestion was never formally proposed.

"When you've done something a certain way for many years, it's very hard to make it different," said Robyn West, the other Anoka County commissioner to vote against the 4 percent wage increases.

Factors in setting salaries

A factor determining the salaries of county attorneys and sheriffs is often longevity in office and the number of raises they've received through the years, Sivarajah said. The Anoka County attorney, Robert M.A. Johnson, will be paid $154,825 next year.

That's $5,353 more than Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's salary next year -- a difference in pay that "Freeman used to point out" when his salary was challenged, Johnson said in jest. But Johnson has been in office 26 years and says he believes he's the longest tenured county attorney in the area.

Another long-tenured county attorney is Dakota County's James Backstrom, who earned $149,342 in 2008 and has been in office since 1987. His 2009 salary may be determined Tuesday.

Freeman -- who took office two years ago, after serving two terms in the '90s -- will receive a salary of $149,472 next year. That's the same amount that will be paid to Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who also was elected two years ago.

The next highest paid sheriff in the metro area in 2008 was not in Ramsey County, where Bob Fletcher commanded $131,680, but in Dakota County, where Sheriff Don Gudmundson made $134,408.

Sherburne County Sheriff Bruce Anderson was paid slightly less than Fletcher in 2008, but next year Anderson will be paid $105,030 by the county and an additional $31,190 for managing the federal jail in Elk River -- a total salary of $136,220.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

Browse salary data for most of Minnesota's largest government employers at startribune. com/infocenter.

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