After months of stressful budget negotiations, tempers erupted between Anoka County Board members Tuesday when Jim Kordiak blasted fellow Commissioner Robyn West's proposal to cut salary increases for county employees as "ludicrous ... a last-minute shell game."
Moments before the board approved a 2009 budget of $269.6 million, with a certified tax levy of $117.5 million -- a 5.99 percent increase over the past year -- West proposed reducing the budget by $3.7 million by trimming proposed raises for employees from 4.5 percent to 3 percent.
West said she talked to several working people in Blaine and came away convinced that even a 3 percent raise was "more than many of our taxpayers are getting."
Suddenly, the typically sleepy board meeting had been ignited.
"I'll be darned if I'll ask the employees" of the county "to carry the budgetary concerns of Anoka County on their backs," Kordiak responded.
Other commissioners joined in with objections to West's proposal. Dick Lang said the high demand for county employees' work justified their raises. Many of those county employees are comparatively underpaid -- and leave for higher-paying jobs with other counties, said Scott LeDoux.
Anoka County employees making "mid-scale" salaries are paid 8 percent below the market rate, according to the county's Human Resources office, said Martha Weaver, Anoka County's public information officer. Employees at the low-end of the market -- usually new employees -- are paid 7 percent below the market rate, Weaver said. But because of the high turnover of many of the positions, the salary scale often slides, she said.
West, who won her commissioner's seat two years ago and is not up for election this year, defended her position, saying, "When I knocked on doors, I told people it mattered to me what people pay for taxes."
Commissioner Dan Erhart repeatedly noted that Anoka County residents paid the fifth-lowest percentage of tax per person in the state, and second-lowest among counties in the metro area. He attributed that to the "quality of employees" and said those employees needed to be supported.
Board Chairman Dennis Berg, who has fretted over the county budget all summer, said the fruits of the county employees' labor may be the best bargain the county can offer taxpayers. He said taxpayers often talk to him about education or the county's care for roads and tell him, "Where can I buy that?"
Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah -- the only board member to support West's proposal -- suggested the 4.5 percent employees' raise be reduced to 3.5 percent. Both West's and Sivarajah's proposals were rejected by 5-2 votes.
Almost lost in it all was an overall budget combining county and rail authority taxes that will mean homeowners pay an average of $14 to $16 less in 2009 than in 2008, county administrator Terry Johnson said.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419