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Wadena Board refuses Auditor/Treasurer's plea to fill staff vacancies

Wadena commissioners voted three to two to rescind their approval for Auditor/Treasurer Judy Taves to hire an accountant to fill a vacancy due to a June 2013 retirement, and a part-time vacancy that occurred nearly a year ago.

The Auditor/Treasurer's department has a small staff — five full-time people plus Taves and one part-time employee — to carry out an enormous list of tasks that include elections, employee payroll and benefits, accounts payable and receivable, property tax administration, land sales, compliance with state and federal laws, and general oversight of the county's $20 million budget.

Commissioners Ron Noon and Rodney Bounds led the campaign to stop Taves from hiring an accountant in a supervisory position. They contend that Taves' department doesn't need another accountant because they already have one — Taves — and because the county plans to hire a county coordinator sometime between February and May 2014.

Noon and Bounds maintain that the new county coordinator will take over one of the duties that Taves has now, service as clerk to the county board, and that Taves will then be freed up to do more of the accounting work herself.

There is no plan to hire a county coordinator who is an accountant. The current interim plan is to hire a county coordinator who has human resources qualifications by education and experience, and who has information technology qualifications by education and experience. It is widely expected that it will take at least three months to hire a county coordinator.

Taves was told in an open meeting last March when she was hired that she should evaluate how her two departments (Auditor and Treasurer) were operating, and let the board know what was needed in order for these departments to function effectively. Board members told her that they would provide her with the staff needed for the departments to function effectively.

But now that Taves has told the board what she needs, a majority refuse to provide it.

Taves said on Dec. 23, "It's important that I have the position. I ask that it not be tabled. It's important for the county.... I believe we absolutely have to have it."

Noon replied, "I think we should hold off until we get someone in place to look at all the offices in the county and get some sharing and make government more efficient. I question the need to raise the [accounting] position to a [four-year degree] level."

Taves said that it was all well and good to make government more efficient, but she had to follow the laws as they exist now, and she finds it extremely difficult to do that without another accountant.

Commissioner Bill Stearns pointed out that since the previous accountant left in June, there has been no supervisor in the Auditor/Treasurer's Office but Taves, and when Taves is out of the office, there is no one in charge. He said, "All the other big departments with fund managers [Highway, Social Services, Public Health] have a four-year degreed accountant." Taves' department manages the county's General Fund, and needs such a person too, he concluded.

Despite Taves' objections, and support of Taves' statements from Stearns and County Attorney Kyra Ladd, the board voted three to two to rescind the approval to hire an accountant that it gave her on Nov. 5. Commissioners Hillukka, Bounds, and Noon voted to rescind the approval. Commissioners Stearns and Hofer voted against it.

In addition to the topic of the accounting position, the board took action on several other issues at the special meeting.

• Commissioners voted themselves a salary increase as well as an increase in their per diem compensation. Between 2003 and 2013, commissioners did not receive any salary increase. Their salaries were set at $13,390 annually — the lowest of any of Minnesota's 87 counties. In 2006, commissioners raised their per diem pay from $50 per day to $75 per day. Per diem payments are made to a commissioner each time he or she attends a community organization meeting assigned by the chair. For example, when commissioners attend Community Correction board meetings, Tri-County Health Board meetings, Kitichigami Regional Library Board meetings, etc. Each commissioner is assigned a variety of community organizations to attend, as well as liaison duties to the county's own department heads.The board asked Noon to study the base salaries and per diem arrangements of other counties in Minnesota. He presented a chart to the board at its Dec. 3 meeting, showing that Wadena County had the lowest salary and per diem in the state. Noon suggested that the board adopt a flat annual salary and do away with per diems, as several counties have done. He suggested the flat salary be $25,000.At the meeting, the other commissioners expressed reservations about doing away with per diem payments and setting a flat salary. After two motions were made (one by Stearns and one by Hofer) with suggestions for salary increases, but did not receive the needed "second", a third motion was made by Noon, raising the base salary to $15,400 and the per diem payment to $100. This motion was seconded, but passed only by a vote of 3 to 2. Hillukka and Bounds voted against the increases.The effect of the vote to increase salary and per diem will be to provide each commissioner with an annual increase of about $4,000.

• Commissioners voted to approve the county's 2014 budget for revenues and expenses with increases of less than $500,000 each. The 2014 expected revenues are $20,986,905, and expected expenditures are $20,550,433, which yields an expected surplus of $436,472. A budget is a guideline and a planning document, and will be amended to take account of unexpected changes. The board refused to provide the media with copies of the budget during the discussion they held about it. At recent meetings, paper copies of several agenda items have been withheld from the media. This reporter has protested and informed the board that the Minnesota Open Meeting Law requires that copies of all documents under consideration at a public meeting must be provided to those in attendance. County Attorney Kyra Ladd gave her copy of the budget to the media representatives so that they could follow the discussion.The 2013 budget, as amended, saw revenues of $20,874,538, and expenditures of $20,965,577, with a shortfall of $91,039. The final accounting of 2013 will take place in January 2014.

• Commissioners voted to approve the expenditure of $500 to obtain a pay equity study from the Hay Group for the job description they have developed for the position of County Coordinator. The study will take place during January 2014.

• Commissioners voted to approve Cheryl Goettig continuing to act as the county's Human Resources Consultant until the County Coordinator is hired, assuming that the County Coordinator will have Human Resources qualifications and will be able to take over the duties that Goettig has performed for the county in a consulting capacity for about 18 months.

• Commissioners held a one-hour closed meeting to discuss a proposed three-year Essential Unit labor contract.