Brandt Richardson sits at the top of the list, Gary Shelton squarely at the bottom, but the top administrators of Dakota and Scott counties could argue that they’re both underpaid.

Shelton’s Scott County points out that he earns less than a pair of the people who report to him.

Richardson’s Dakota County points out that people below him on the food chain, performing no better than he is, are getting raises much bigger than his.

The issue jumped into public prominence this month when Shelton, by far the lowest-paid top administrator among the five suburban counties in the Twin Cities, was awarded a 5 percent bump.

Part of the pitch was a graphic showing that his four counterparts average $155,000, or well over the $132,701 that Shelton then made. At the top: Richardson, at $167,437, who also happens to run the biggest of the five and to have held the position for three decades.

Whether it’s politics, whether it’s staff-board chemistry, whether it’s performance or time on the job, there doesn’t seem to be much obvious logic to why some top administrators are paid more than others. The smallest suburban county, Carver, pays its top employee the third-highest salary, while the second-biggest, Anoka, pays the second-smallest salary.

Some factors are out of the counties’ hands — for instance, a state law that caps city and county officials’ salaries. When Dakota County officials responded by e-mail to questions about how the administrator’s pay is set, they said:

“In real effect, the administrator’s salary is now determined by the movement of the state-determined salary cap imposed on city and county employees only (not school district employees, sheriffs, or county attorneys).”

The fact that the cap applies to county administrators but not school superintendents, for instance, means an administrator overseeing many more employees and a far larger budget could make much less money.

Political dangers

Politics plays a role in pay decisions, as well. The south-metro counties have both been wary of pay raises during the economic downturn, for instance.

“In 2009 and 2010 as part of my evaluation I actually indicated I preferred not to have a raise at that time,” Shelton reminded board members last week. “We did adjust pay for staff, but myself and other senior managers elected not to. Then, we froze all pay.”

In Dakota, officials said in a written statement, “there were limited (or zero, in some years) salary increases for all employees during the recession … In addition, since Mr. Richardson is the longest tenured county administrator of all metro counties, his salary has been limited for many years — prior to and during the recession — by the state-imposed salary cap.”

Another political consideration: Scott County board chairman Tom Wolf noted that although Shelton gets another performance review later this year, which is linked to pay, “two raises in a four- to five-month period are not going to go over with people.”

Finding the balance

When setting pay, Dakota says it does look to similarly sized counties for guidance. County spokeswoman Gail Plewacki said in an e-mail:

“The county administrator’s salary range … has been determined by comparison with compensation in a benchmark set of counties of comparable sizes, scope, complexity and market position.”

Dakota does not have the same situation as Scott in which anyone reporting to the administrator gets paid more than he does, she added. However:

“Some county employees are nearing the administrator’s salary, and with the continued impact of the salary cap, this gap will likely close further each year. For example, this year, the administrator’s salary increased by 1 percent as determined by the state-imposed salary cap, while other county employees with similar performance rating received a 3 percent base increase plus 2 percent lump sum increase.”

Jack Kemme, Scott’s director of employee relations, told board members that a qualified replacement for Shelton would “mid to high 140s,” or closer to what Shelton’s counterpart in the smaller Carver makes ($149,000), on the open market.