Their ears still ringing from harangues during the public hearing, Ramsey County commissioners voted Tuesday to raise their own pay by nearly 3 percent.
They did so with more than a little defensiveness. Commissioner Jim McDonough spoke of folks who “think we should do these jobs for free,” while colleague Rafael Ortega asserted his belief that “we are the only county that takes this action before an election. Everyone else waits ’til after the election and then takes this action.”
Commissioner Blake Huffman, who is a Republican candidate for governor, was not present for the salary vote. An aide said he was out of town and added: “I can’t say how he would have voted.”
Ramsey commissioners in recent years have awarded themselves what county workers in general make. Tuesday’s vote authorized a 2018 salary bump for board members of 2.6 percent, or $92,423, and to $95,313 for the chair.
A dissenting vote was cast by Commissioner Janet Rettman. “We’re very lucky to get to do this job,” she said, adding: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say we need to do it for free.” Commissioner pay has “reached the upper limit,” she said.
While it’s true that the board of neighboring Washington County acted on the salary issue in December — after the election — a spokeswoman said the board has frozen its pay since 2009. Hennepin County commissioners voted themselves raises shortly before the 2016 general election.
State law does call for County Board salary changes to be voted on before elections, although the definition of before and after can be debated. Ramsey County’s last election was in the fall and the next one will be in 2018. In effect, a 2019 raise will have to be approved before the 2018 election.
Board Chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt said the board’s own raises lag behind those of county workers.
“We are one year behind,” she said. “What they got in 2017, we get in 2018. We’ve chosen at times to not do as much.”
The process is a “very difficult” one, leading to differing solutions over time, she said. “It’s about who sits in these seats in the future” as well as those in the room today, she said.
The issue of commissioner pay is probably the most fraught in counties where closely contested elections are the norm. Close contests are uncommon in either Ramsey or Hennepin counties.
“You’re your own worst enemy if you won’t take a raise,” said Hennepin County spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan. “These are positions in charge of a nearly $2 billion budget.”
Ramsey County’s McDonough said he was “speaking from the heart” in declaring the raises reasonable.
“It’s a difficult situation we’re put in by our charter,” he said. “We have to do this [ourselves],” as opposed to having some independent body make the call.