Although stingy with their own paychecks, Washington County commissioners vowed a few years ago to incrementally raise wages for the county's top leaders until they were competitive with similar jobs in other metro-area counties.
On Tuesday, the board again made good on that promise.
The two elected department managers, County Attorney Pete Orput and Sheriff Bill Hutton, each received 3.5 percent pay increases, raising them both to a 2016 salary of $154,960. Molly O'Rourke, the top administrator who oversees the county workforce of 1,200, will be paid $165,334.
Orput's salary ranks fifth among metro county attorneys, after Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Anoka. But he's also making $23,120 more than when he was first elected to office in 2011.
Commissioners commended Orput for anti-crime efforts on issues such as domestic violence, veterans' court, truancy and human trafficking.
"His prosecutorial skills are second to none," said Gary Kriesel, who chairs the board. "He's really raised the profile of the county attorney's office out in our community."
Hutton's salary increase puts him second in pay only to Hennepin County among metro county sheriffs. Hutton, first elected in 2006, was lauded for his work with the Citizens Academy, jail crisis intervention, social media outreach and "Coffee with a Cop."
Hutton, Kriesel said, "is old school. He knows the importance of connecting with the community."
Community relations figure largely into how commissioners evaluate the work of top leaders, O'Rourke included.
"I think Molly has shown considerable skill," said Commissioner Lisa Weik, commending O'Rourke's abilities in strategic planning. "There's a long list of active and very well-done initiatives in her office."
O'Rourke's percentage increase was smaller than what Orput and Hutton received — less than 1 percent — because she has reached the maximum under state law. The board gave her an extra week of paid vacation and authorized an appeal for a salary exemption for 2017 — which explains why administrators in Hennepin and Dakota counties make more than O'Rourke.
"We try to keep our salary range competitive with other counties across the state. That's what it takes," Kriesel said.
In contrast to their awarding of salary increases, however, commissioners took nothing for themselves.
The board hasn't raised commissioner salaries since 2009. The five Washington County commissioners now draw the smallest annual board salary, at $52,713, among the seven metro counties.
Four of those counties have seven commissioners — and administrative assistants to help with their workload — but Washington County runs lean.
"It's not that we don't work hard and we're not busy," said Commissioner Karla Bigham.
While various commissioners have come and gone over the past decade, their collective resolve to limit spending has butted against two prominent trends: a surge in the county's population growth and a defection of employees because of lower wages.
On that last point, commissioners have voiced their support for competitive wages for all of Washington County's workers.