The “perfect storm” of employee turnover left the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office scrambling to fill more than 30 vacancies in recent months — the most that Sheriff James Stuart can remember in his 23 years with the county.

A common complaint emerged: pay.

“I’m not saying we need to be paid the best, but I think we need to be competitive,” Stuart said.

Anoka County logged the highest employee turnover rate in the seven-county metro last year. Officials say that’s partly because of a voluntary separation program as well as the typical struggles facing public-sector employers in a stronger economy: retiring baby boomers, ample private-sector jobs and fierce competition for a shrinking number of applicants.

In some counties, turnover has doubled since 2010, with officials citing trouble with recruiting and retaining employees.

“It’s a statewide issue,” said Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. “It’s intensifying.”

Time spent hiring and training can make the churn costly, officials say. And in Anoka County, some current and former staff say pay in certain positions is largely to blame.

Department heads have made urgent pleas for salary boosts as workers are siphoned off to smaller counties and cities, where employees say they are often taking similar jobs for thousands more in pay.

In a memo to county officials last year, the transportation division manager, Doug Fischer, described the county’s pay plan as “completely out of sync with not only the private sector but the public sector as well.” He added that former employees were actively recruiting their former co-workers to join them in other cities and counties.

“It is hard to keep a highly motivated staff when they have one foot out the door or feel stupid for staying here,” Fischer wrote.

Last fall, the County Board approved the largest salary increases for nonunion workers since 2009, as well as similar pay bumps for many union employees. The 3 percent increase may seem modest, but county officials say it has already boosted morale after years of buckling down during tough economic times.

“It was due,” Commissioner Julie Braastad said.

Shared struggles

Anoka County’s nearly 15 percent turnover rate from 2016 is on pace with recent trends among its peers with rates consistently ranging from 7 to 15 percent across the metro in the past five years.

With surging retirements often fueling these numbers, the race to fill vacancies is heating up, officials say.

“We’re competing for the same candidates,” said Nancy Hohbach, Dakota County’s employee relations director.

Anoka County has been tracking reasons for voluntary resignations since 2013. Employees who participated in an exit survey cited pay as the top reason for leaving in 2015. In 2016, county records show that workers cited “new job” as the top reason for leaving, while overt references to pay came in second. (It’s unclear if these reasons are related.)

Officials say they aim to offer competitive pay but that workers may be drawn to Anoka County for other perks, from a better work-life balance to good benefits to convenient parking.

“We are never going to be the county that pays the highest in the metro area, but we are looking at being within a particular range,” Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah said.

‘I would have stayed’

Former transportation division employees say workers have left in droves in recent years, often due to pay.

Dylan Debel worked at Anoka County as a heavy equipment operator for nearly three years, making about $18 an hour when he started and $20 when he left in 2014. He took the same job in Chisago County at $21 an hour and now earns about $25.

He says the lack of opportunity for pay advancement drove him from the county where he once planned to buy a house.

“If I had made a living wage down there, I never would have left,” said Debel, 35. “I would have stayed.”

Tanner Anderson said he also would have stayed, but after more than seven years with the county, he left his job as a crew leader and took a downgraded position in the Elk River street department in 2015. He started there at $22.80 — about 40 cents an hour over his Anoka County job — but now makes nearly $26 in a similar position in the parks department.

Anderson, 38, said workers considered Anoka County “a training ground.”

“It made it more difficult for the supervisors to schedule projects because your experienced and talented operators were leaving,” he said.

‘On the right path’

Lately, vacancies are down in both the transportation division and the sheriff’s office, where only a handful or so of openings remain, Stuart said.

During arbitration for county deputies last fall, Stuart testified that trouble recruiting has been “hands down” tied to uncompetitive wages.

In recent years, deputies were paid about $500 less a month than the average of four comparable metro counties, union data show. If no increases had been approved, starting pay would have dropped to more than $800 a month below average.

Instead, the board approved a 2.5 percent increase for deputies, who are also eligible for a 2 percent performance-based bump. Similar contracts were negotiated for other workers represented by the Law Enforcement Labor Services, Inc. union.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we are on the right path,” Stuart said. “But it’s going to take some work to get there.”