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Raise refused to three county department heads

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At its Feb. 7 board meeting, Wadena County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to refuse its three remaining elected officials the equivalent pay increase that all other county department heads received for 2012. The officials were the county auditor/treasurer, county recorder, and county attorney. The fourth elected official, the county sheriff, last month refused any pay increase for 2012.

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All four elected officials are department heads. They supervise employees, prepare and maintain budgets, and carry out all duties required of non-elected department heads employed by the county.

The county auditor/treasurer, county recorder and county attorney submitted to the board two options for the setting of their 2012 salaries. One option was to continue the 2011 salary rate, and the other option was to give the one-step increase that all other employees in the county received (except the sheriff, at his request).

Commissioner Bill Stearns made a motion to give the step increase to the elected official who appeared before the board first, County Auditor/Treasurer Char West. West is responsible for all financial matters of the county. But commissioners voted three to two to refuse the request. Those voting no were Commissioners Ralph Miller, Rodney Bounds and Dave Hillukka.

Next, Hillukka made a motion to give West a one-half step increase, which would result in a pay increase of 59 cents per hour. Miller, Bounds and Hillukka voted to approve this increase.

Similarly, County Recorder Soledad Henricksen presented her two salary options, like West's. Henriksen is responsible for tracking and recording all document transactions in the county, including wills, real estate transfers, etc. Bounds offered a motion with a one-half step increase. It was voted for by the same three commissioners. Henricksen's pay increase will be 46 cents per hour.

Finally, County Attorney Kyra Ladd presented the board with her two salary options. The county attorney is responsible for upholding the laws of the state of Minnesota, and prosecuting individuals arrested by the county sheriff and charged with civil or criminal violations. Commissioner Lane Waldahl offered a motion in line with the two previous officials' increases (one-half step), and the motion passed. Ladd's pay increase will be 80 cents per hour.

In January, all three officials, all of whom are women, had offered the board evidence of their pay status compared to similar officials in other Minnesota counties; all three Wadena County officials were paid substantially lower salaries than officials in most other central Minnesota counties.

Several commissioners asked questions of union business manager Joanne Derby, who was present at the board meeting to speak on several other matters. Derby said, "I don't represent these elected officials. They are not members of a bargaining unit."

Nevertheless, the commissioners asked Derby whether they could offer the elected officials less than one full step increase without triggering action by the union, and Derby said that yes, they could do so.

When asked why the board refused to grant the three elected officials the same one-step increases that the seven county other department heads received, Board Chair Ralph Miller made no response. When asked whether commissioners were dissatisfied with the performance of the elected officials, Miller said "I am not comfortable" with responding to the question.

Other topics before the board included another discussion and attempted resolution of the union-management disagreement about paying county Solid Waste Transfer Station workers time-and-one-half for working on Saturdays. Solid Waste Director Mike Hanan, union business manager Joanne Derby, County Attorney Kyra Ladd, and Solid Waste Supervisor Tammy Ehrmantraut were present for an extensive discussion on this topic. Hanan presented the board with a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) intended to conclude the matter and provide for a method of determining how these employees would be paid during the remainder of 2012 for their Saturday work.

Derby said she had just received a copy of the agreement, and was not prepared to sign it today. Derby asked for additional information about communication between labor attorney Steve Burton and county officials, but Ladd said it was privileged information and would not be shared.

Finally, Waldahl said, "This has gone on long enough. We've consulted our committee and our labor attorney. We need to get this settled." He moved for approval of the MOA. The motion was seconded and passed. Now Derby must review it and decide whether the union will agree to it.

After this, Hanan gave the board copies of a proposal prepared at his request by Widseth Smith Nolting, engineers for the county, for a study of the Transfer Station building and facilities, which would include a complete evaluation of the facilities and their ability to handle the current and future increased volume of recyclables. The cost of the study would be $5,300 from the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund. A motion passed to approve the study.

Bunni Olson from University Extension appeared before the board to request that a second casual on-call employee be hired to cover vacations and sick leave for Olson. After discussion, the board agreed with Waldahl's assertion that the county needed a pool of people who could be called to fill in at Extension as well as in other departments for vacations and sick leave. A motion was made and passed 3-2 to advertise for such a person. Miller and Bounds voted against the motion.

The reclassification of jobs in the County Assessor's Office was also discussed. Four current employees of the Assessor's Office have been taking education classes and doing jobs above their current pay grade for between 12 and 18 months. Recently, management consultant Mike Gibson was asked to perform comparable worth studies of the four employees and their jobs.

Gibson found that two employees who have been working at Grade 51, should be reclassified to Grade 52, and that two employees who have been working at Grade 52 should be reclassified to Grade 53. All four have completed education courses and secured assessor's licenses appropriate to their work tasks.

The employees agreed to accept reclassification at the higher grade level if they could receive a step placement equal to their current step, i.e., if they were on step 6 now, they would be placed on step 6 at the higher grade level. Such a placement would result in a pay increase of at least $3,000 per employee. In return for this, the employees would not seek back pay to cover the 12 to 18 months that they had been performing work at a higher level than that for which they were being paid. All four employees were women.

The board voted to approve the new grade and step placements for each of the four employees. Ladd drafted a motion that described the process of making the changes and made it clear that the union agreed to the process, and that the process would not set a precedent for future pay equity studies.

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