Elected and appointed officials of Wadena County will see increases to their pay in 2020 that bring their salaries closer to average among area counties.
Wadena County Commissioners discussed each position salary including that of County Attorney Kyra Ladd, County Auditor/Treasurer Heather Olson, County Recorder Soledad Henriksen, County Sheriff Mike Carr Jr. and County Engineer Ryan Odden. Each had their salaries adjusted for 2020 based on a DDA wage study recommendation from the county personnel committee. In all cases, salaries saw increases based on a formula of 90% of the average salary from a list of six surrounding counties, plus a 2.25% cost-of-living adjustment increase.
The study included Becker, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Morrison, Otter Tail and Todd counties. Wadena County officials had the lowest pay in almost all positions compared to the other counties in 2019, despite some of the Wadena County officials being in their position for many more years in some cases.
All commissioners approved of the increases except Commissioner Jon Kangas. Kangas' "yes" votes came in support of the increase for Sheriff Carr, County Engineer Odden and County Attorney Ladd. Kangas said he spoke with Carr extensively and believes that the increase was necessary. It was also the smallest of the increases. Kangas repeatedly said he did not support Otter Tail County being in the equation as it was a much larger county, with much larger tax base and it's officials were paid much higher than the other counties within the study. He felt that the increase to the engineer pay was more in line with the average.
How much higher?
Otter Tail County pays their officials in some cases $50,000 more than Wadena County officials. For example, their Sheriff is paid over $30,000 more; their Auditor/Treasurer is paid over $50,000 more; their recorder is paid over $25,000 more; their attorney is paid $152,320, nearly $50,000 more than Wadena's; and their engineer makes over $25,000 more.
“I think next time we should look at other counties,” Kangas said.
County Attorney Kyra Ladd pointed out that commissioners asked that these surrounding counties be included in the study -- including Otter Tail County.
After much debate over each staff member, commissioners approved the increases as follows:
- County attorney Kyra Ladd increased to $116,103.06, a $12,216.55 increase. Ladd has been in her position for over 13 years.
- County auditor/treasurer Heather Olson increased to $86,708, a $12,111.22 increase. Olson has been in her position for a year.
- County recorder Soledad Henriksen increased to $71,301, an increase of $9,800.99. Henriksen has been in her position since 1991.
- County Sheriff Mike Carr Jr. increased to $100,746, an increase of $6,056.18. Carr has been in his position for 13 years.
- County engineer Ryan Odden increased to $109,522.90, an increase of $7,873.15. Odden has been in his position for about 10 years.
These elected officials do not have sick time or paid vacation worked into their pay.
County attorney increase tied to judge salary
One difference among the increases was that of the County Attorney's office. While the increase to the county attorney was 90% of the average salary, plus the COLA increase, future increases in this department are based on increases to the trial court judge salary and annual increases. This idea was taken from Otter Tail County, which follows a similar practice. Further adjustments to the attorney's office include the assistant county attorney II receiving pay at 75% of the average and the assistant county attorney I receiving a salary at 65% of the average. Even at a lower amount than the average, this still boosts the salary of these positions enough to make them more attractive to prospective attorneys, commissioners reasoned. That increase puts the beginning salary for assistant county attorney II at about $96,000.
That's an important move as the attorney's office has been without a full staff for much of the last three years. The lack of salaries paid out over that period more than pays for the increase in pay for 2020, according to Auditor/Treasurer Heather Olson.
"In the last 36 months, I've been fully staffed for nine months," Ladd said. "Everyone of the attorneys that have been here and left have done so for higher wages."
County board chair Bill Stearns called the situation a crisis that's happening throughout rural regions.
Ladd said the situation is not only stressful for her to take on much more of the workload, it's also not fair to those seeking assistance.
"I've got close to 700 cases," Ladd said. "My office should be a four attorney office. I can't do this. I just can't do this."
Commissioners concurred that the situation was dire. Ladd explained there is a shortage of attorneys and there are currently nine attorney openings within Minnesota counties.
"We have to have some comparable pay to what those other counties are offering,” Commissioner Sheldon Monson said. Monson added that they need to do what they can to retain the employees they have.
In the vote, all commissioners approved of the increase.
Commissioner pay increased
Along with those elected officials seeing raises, commissioners voted 3-2 to give themselves a raise. Commissioner Bill Stearns, Jim Hofer and Chuck Horsager voted in favor, while Sheldon Monson and Jon Kangas voted against.
Monson and Kangas argued that this was not a full-time job and they didn't wish to increase the pay, which was a few hundred dollars.
"I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't say that I think we should leave it the same for now," Kangas said.
Stearns, Hofer and Horsager were in agreement that a small incremental increase was a better move now than to make a major increase in the future in an effort to catch up. The new pay for commissioners is $16,543, plus $1,525 extra for the chair and $100 per meeting pay. The difference is a 2.25% increase over 2019.