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County scrutinizes sheriff's budget

WORTHINGTON -- For the third time in a month, the county's 2006 budget for law enforcement became a point of contention between Nobles County Commissioners and the sheriff's department.

In a special meeting Wednesday morning, commissioners again met with Sheriff Kent Wilkening to discuss expenditures in the department -- including the amount of overtime employees racked up in both the public safety and jail budgets between Jan. 1 and mid-November.

During those 11 months, the county was billed $29,196.77 in overtime for patrol hours, court time and administration of the DARE program. In addition, $33,092.03 in overtime was paid through the jail budget. As the county nears its deadline to finalize the 2007 budget, commissioners expressed concern with the amount of overtime paid out this year and want to see it reduced in 2007.

Board chair Marv Zylstra said the county is like any other business -- it needs to keep overtime pay to a minimum.

In a county work session earlier this month, Chief Deputy Chris Heinrichs explained that 64 hours of overtime was for the DARE officer to conduct presentations in the county's schools. Those hours were not presented when Heinrichs created his work schedule, and he assured commissioners the overtime wouldn't be an issue the next time the work schedule was completed.

While DARE hours accounted for a share of the overtime hours, a large amount was billed because deputies either were called out early or had to remain on duty late as a result of an incident. Nearly equal to that overtime pay is overtime hours Heinrichs blames on the current union contract, which states employees must receive time-and-a-half pay for holidays, whether they work or not. That pay is added to the regular 40-hour work week, and is therefore considered overtime pay for the seven deputies affected.

Nobles County Administrator Mel Ruppert, however, said employees are paid based on a 2,080 hour work year, including holidays. During the Nov. 14 work session, he said holidays need to be factored into the 40-hour work week.

Heinrichs said giving employees a day off at some point in the week because they work a holiday will force him to leave shifts uncovered.

"I can't leave a shift open," Heinrichs said at the work session. "That's impossible for me to do that."

Commissioners said they'd like to see the union contract language changed, but the existing contract is in effect through 2008.

Changing contract language to eliminate overtime pay for holidays, however, likely wouldn't eliminate the need for overtime. As Wilkening again pointed out Wednesday, the sheriff's department's budget is completely contingent on crime.

"Our business depends on what people do and don't do," Wilkening said. "Our number of calls seems to go up every year, and paper service seems to go up every year.

"I do know the amount of serious crimes (such as assaults) have gone up quite a bit," he added.

Based on projections for 2007, Wilkening is requesting a public safety budget of $1,143,260 for 2007, a 16.86 percent increase over his 2006 actual budget of $978,329. His 2007 corrections budget request is 17.97 percent above his 2006 budget, going from $1,196,925 to $1,412,046.

Included in the sheriff's budget request are pay increases over and above the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) and step increases for five of the department's non-union employees -- the sheriff, chief deputy, sergeant, jail administrator and jail program coordinator. The requested pay adjustments would take the sheriff's salary from the present $77,675 to $87,000 and the chief deputy's from $68,225 to $75,000. The sheriff requested adjustments totaling about $7,000 in additional pay for the sergeant, $8,000 for the jail administrator, and $6,000 for the jail program coordinator.

The additional pay requests were discussed among commissioners after Wilkening left the meeting. In a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, Wilkening said he made those requests for pay adjustments to bring the positions more in line with what is being paid in other counties.

"The jobs that they do, the responsibilities that they have and the fact that the county's pay scale and system is not correct and needs to be worked on," said Wilkening of the reasons he made the pay adjustment requests. "The commissioners are not consistent in who they give increases to and how they try to hide things."

Wilkening expressed frustration with commissioners' lack of questions during the morning meeting.

"They asked me to come and talk about my budget," Wilkening added. "They should have asked me while I was there. I think that's very poor on the commissioners' part. I was there to answer questions, and if they had them, why didn't they ask?

"Those numbers were what I considered to be a fair and equitable way to pay my staff," he continued, adding that his deputies and jailers are also entitled to better pay.

As for issues with overtime pay, Wilkening said he approached administration two or three years ago about the contract language regarding holiday pay, yet nothing was done to change the language before a new contract was signed for 2006. He said it's the contract language, not scheduling, that needs to change.

"By adjusting the schedule, the county gets less -- less time on the road and less staff coverage," he added.

No action was taken on the sheriff's budget during Wednesday's meeting. The final budget process will take place during the county's December meetings.

In other action, the board:

- Approved a joint powers agreement stating all nine counties in Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water will share in the guarantee in the issuance of $3.58 million in general obligation water revenue notes. At the same time, commissioners approved a joint powers agreement with the Minnesota Governmental Agency Financial Group and appointed the county board chair and his designee to represent the county during a Dec. 6 meeting. Further action was to authorize the issuance of the bonds.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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