Top public safety officials from Hennepin County pitched fatter budgets for 2014 to commissioners Friday, saying one of their priorities is to stem the flow of quality and diverse employees leaving for better-paying jobs with other counties or private companies.

A pay freeze over the past couple of years and budget constraints due to shrinking state funding have put the county at a competitive disadvantage, said County Attorney Mike Freeman. Although a tentative contract agreement reached Friday with a large chunk of employees could raise salaries over the next two years, he and others still want the County Board to contribute to the pot.

“If the county is committed to diversity, they need to step up to the plate,” he said.

None of the budget-increase requests from Freeman, the public defender and sheriff’s offices, and community corrections was larger than 4 percent, and commissioners didn’t throw up much opposition. The final budget vote is expected Dec. 17.

After Friday’s meeting, board Chair Michael Opat said commissioners have heard arguments in recent contract negotiations that the county is losing its competitive edge, but were supplied with few details. He said he’d like to know if the county truly isn’t competitive in terms of salary or total compensation packages.

“We are sensitive to the concerns, but we don’t take all of this info at face value, even from our own department heads,” he said. “We will do our due diligence. We want to be seen as a first-rate county.”

Opat noted that county employees didn’t have a complete pay freeze over the last few years because many received lump-sum bonuses and increases at higher pay scales. The pay-scale step system also provided some annual bumps, he said.

Freeman, who asked for a 2.5 percent increase, said his office has the lowest starting salary for a first-year assistant county attorney out of the seven metro-area counties. That salary is $52,000, compared to $71,000 for a first-year assistant city attorney in Minneapolis, he said. Anoka and Ramsey counties pay first-year attorneys $52,000 and $58,436 respectively.

County Sheriff Richard Stanek echoed Freeman’s issues, saying a large percentage of the more than three dozen dispatchers, deputies and jail clerks who left his office did so because of low wages.

Opat countered that deputy jobs at the sheriff’s office are often entry-level and become a steppingstone for positions at other law enforcement agencies.

The majority of Stanek’s budget comes from property taxes, Opat said. “We are always trying to balance a competitive workforce and the stress on taxpayers,” he said.

Salary constraints are one of many challenges in recruiting candidates for Hennepin County’s public defender office, said William Ward, the office’s chief public defender. It is trying a new strategy of going to job fairs and offering jobs to students before they finish law school in an effort to ensure a diverse staff, he said.

While Ward asked for a relatively small bump — $175,000 — in his office’s budget, it also is facing growing expenses from hiring language interpreters to help clients avoid immigration status issues that may occur after a plea agreement or conviction.

Much achieved, much to do

To bolster their budget proposals, Freeman and Stanek highlighted statistics about increasing caseloads, successful trial results and lower crime rates. They also talked about ways they’ve reduced the number of guns on the streets, tackled human trafficking and improved officer training for critical incidents.

Among the numbers they presented to commissioners: This year, 8,400 adults were charged with felonies, 40,000 inmates were booked into jail and 43 people died of heroin overdoses.

All who spoke at Friday’s budget meeting talked about the struggles their offices face in dealing with people with mental illness. Stanek said it’s a conservative estimate that 30 percent of those in jail are mentally ill.

“The jail shouldn’t be a warehouse for them,” he said.