REGIONAL — County commissioners set their not-to-exceed levies earlier this month and now have until mid-December to whittle down costs and present a budget and levy palatable for the public that elected them.

A large share of any county budget is staffing. While wages and pay increases send the levy upward each year, overtime pay is also a factor.

Data requests made to Nobles, Rock, Pipestone, Murray, Cottonwood and Jackson counties reveal the greatest amount of overtime is spent on two departments — law enforcement and public works.

Law enforcement provides 24-hour service and must maintain safe staffing levels. Public works, meanwhile, is called upon whenever Mother Nature strikes. Crews are called upon to clear the roads of snow and ice, and when the floods come — as they have several times in the past 18 months — they may be sandbagging, repairing roads and replacing washed-out culverts.

Nobles County, with the largest population of the six counties (22,021 in 2018, according to Minnesota State Demographic Center estimates), has 123 county employees. It ranked first in overtime pay, both in 2018 and the first half of 2019.

Last year, overtime pay was equal to a 2.5% increase in the levy, said Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson. It’s a cost counties try to budget by averaging out past years, but there are many unknowns.

Nobles County departments logging more than $1,000 in overtime in 2018 included public works, $148,853; law enforcement, $147,277; building maintenance, $16,996; finance, $6,253, Environmental Services, $3,779; IT, $3,748; and Community Services, $2,563.

Johnson explained the nearly $17,000 in overtime on building maintenance is due to the age of the buildings and the systems used. Boiler checks are required seven days per week, leading to weekend overtime. In addition, a maintenance issue at the jail requires someone to respond day or night, weekend or holiday.

In law enforcement, Sheriff Kent Wilkening said deputies log overtime for a variety of reasons. If they make an arrest a half-hour before their shift ends, they have paperwork to process before they can go home. That adds about two hours to their shift. Also, officers working the night shift have to testify in court or complete mandatory training; both are only during daytime hours, thus resulting in overtime pay.

“Court is an automatic three hours of overtime,” Wilkening said. It’s in their union contract.

As for the jail, Wilkening said a staff shortage requires existing personnel to fill in the vacancies. The same goes for transporting inmates.

“We just, a lot of times, can’t pull people off the floor to do a transport so we have to call somebody in,” he said.

Reducing overtime costs in law enforcement would be difficult. In the jail, staffing requirements are in place to ensure employee safety. With the sheriff’s office, public safety is paramount.

“I’ve been telling the county board for years that I need more staff (in the jail),” Wilkening said. “Will that get rid of overtime completely? No. That’s just the nature of our business.

“We do our best to keep overtime down, but we are dependent on the number of calls and number of inmates,” he added. “We have to have people here to work.”

In addition to simply needing employees to fill shifts, overtime pay also adds up due to holidays — 10 per year. On those days, workers get holiday pay, plus time-and-a-half pay for their shift.

The jail brings in revenue from housing inmates for other counties, which can offset overtime pay, but it also has to cover basic expenses.

For 2020, Wilkening is requesting a full-time assistant jail administrator, a new position.

In public works, overtime pay included snow removal, construction engineering and shop maintenance.

Director Stephen Schnieder said each road project required an onsite construction engineer to document work and perform inspections. If the contractors work late, so too does the construction engineer.

“Anytime (union workers) are over eight hours in a work day, they get paid overtime,” Schnieder said. Non-union workers, meanwhile, get overtime only when they’ve worked more than 40 hours a week.

While construction engineering and snow removal costs on county state aid highways are covered by state aid allotments, it still factors into overtime costs. In addition to working more than 40 hours, union workers earn time-and-a-half on Saturdays and double time on Sundays. Non-union workers are paid time-and-a-half.

“The county doesn’t have a comp time policy for our highway and maintenance people,” Schnieder said. “If (an employee wishes) to do that, they certainly can.”

The idea of adding staff to alleviate overtime pay isn’t lost on Schnieder, who said his 12 maintenance workers cover 460 county highway miles — one of the lowest ratios in this part of the state.

“We’ve talked about having a higher number of people, but the board hasn’t budgeted a higher number of maintenance workers,” he said.

Rock County

Rock County, population 9,435, ranked second of the six counties in overtime pay, both in 2018 and the first half of 2019.

Administrator Kyle Oldre said three floods, snow removal and road reconstruction added up in overtime pay.

The highway department racked up $110,200 in overtime in 2018, and $76,700 for the first half of 2019. Overtime related to disaster declarations will be recouped from either the Federal Emergency Management Agency (100%) or the state of Minnesota (75%).

“We’ve had 100-year floods it seems every six months,” Oldre said. “There are some areas that are absolutely unavoidable for overtime.”

Highway overtime was second only to law enforcement, again due to shift coverage 24-7/365.

Oldre said Sheriff Evan Verbrugge has made pitches for additional staff, but it’s not that simple. In an ideal situation, the employee would be flexible enough to work two nights, two days and one weekend day each week — an unrealistic schedule.

The county budgets some overtime, especially in the sheriff’s office.

“We know that there’s going to be so many taking vacations, we know there’s going to be some sick leave,” Oldre said. “It’s an anticipated cost in doing business for us.”

Other county departments logging more than $1,000 in overtime in 2018 included General Revenue (land records, building maintenance, library, auditor-treasurer, administration and IT) at $22,950 and Rock County Rural Water, $2,584.

Murray County

Response to floods, snow and ice, as well as law enforcement coverage, made up the bulk of overtime pay in Murray County, population 8,293. Engineer Randy Groves figures his staff logged more overtime trying to keep roads clear than they did during the 2018 flood.

“Typically, the overtime we see during the flood is a short window of time,” he said. “The winter months tend to go on and on.”

Groves tries to be conservative for taxpayers and yet get the job done.

“What we do is very important for public safety,” he said. “People have higher expectations today than years ago. People don’t like being snowed in now.”

Murray County spent nearly $66,000 in overtime in highway maintenance, engineering and shop maintenance in 2018. That compares to $67,333 for the first half of 2019. Flood related overtime will be recouped from FEMA, but they are still waiting for the checks.

Overtime in law enforcement (sheriff’s office, boat and water, dispatchers, drug dog and other public safety-related staffing), meanwhile, was $175,100 in 2018. For the first half of 2019, overtime pay reached $73,314.

Chief Deputy Heath Landsman said court security adds up to a lot of overtime pay.

“We ask for part-time officers for court security and are told no,” he said. “We have court sometimes a couple of times a week, and that doesn’t take long to add up.”

Landsman has asked for two part-time officers, but they are hard to find in the area, especially when there’s no guarantee on how many hours they will work.

“If our guys took time off, part-timers could be hired at a lesser rate of pay,” he added.

County departments logging more than $1,000 in overtime in 2018 included community relations ($2,430), auditor-treasurer ($2,606), assessor ($1,206), building maintenance ($2,635), license center ($10,912), recycling ($9,997), solid waste ($3,409), historical society ($1,960), parks ($2,452) and the congregate housing facility ($2,856).

Cottonwood County

Cottonwood County, population 11,293, employs 88 individuals, 68 of which are hourly. Here again, public works and law enforcement accounted for the bulk of overtime pay — $81,379 in 2018 for public works, and $78,796 for law enforcement.

In other departments, Coordinator Kelly Thongvivong said comp time helps the county keep overtime to a minimum.

“We really encourage comp time,” she said.

Employees there would rather leave work a little early or come in late than collect overtime pay.

“Especially the newer employees prefer to take it as comp time because they don’t have the vacation time built up,” Thongvivong said.

Cottonwood County’s policy for comp time has existed for years. All three unions support comp time, but employees realize they can take overtime.

Public works overtime in 2019 has already exceeded 2018 ($94,086) due to snow removal and flooding.

In law enforcement, 2018 overtime pay was $78,796, with $44,439 spent in the first half of 2019.

Other departments with more than $1,000 in overtime in 2018 were auditor-treasurer ($1,680), recorder ($10,491) and grounds/buildings ($2,275).

Jackson County

Hiring part-timers and using flex time has helped Jackson County, population 9,934, keep its overtime lower than some, with law enforcement and public works collecting the largest share.

“If an officer is out working a case, he doesn’t say, ‘Sorry criminal, I can’t get overtime,’” said Coordinator Steven Duncan.

County policy requires supervisors to authorize overtime, and with office workers, it’s often easier to have them flex time. Hiring part-timers also helps alleviate some overtime.

The county looks at historical trends to budget overtime, and Duncan said there has been talk, at times, of increasing staff.

“With law enforcement, a lot of that overtime may not be alleviated,” he said. “It would be hard to have a full-time person that we don’t have full-time work for, so we lean on part-timers. It’s the same in public works. We don’t want to overstaff.

“It’s still a large number (of overtime), but we feel like we’re staffing in a way that makes the most sense,” Duncan added.

Logging more than $1,000 in overtime in 2018 was the auditor-treasurer’s office at $1,173 and the IT department at $1,522.

Pipestone County

Pipestone County, population 9,100, spent the least on overtime in 2018 at $141,014; it has logged $124,994 in the first half of 2019.

Administrator Steve Ewing attributed most overtime costs to events out of the county’s control — flooding and winter storms — while noting law enforcement is simply “very expensive.”

In 2018, law enforcement accounted for nearly $74,600 of overtime pay, with $58,875 for the highway department.

“For the rank and file we don’t have a ton of overtime, primarily because our office hours are 8 to 5,” Ewing said.

The county operates its own ambulance service with two full-time paramedics and two full-time EMTs, which did account for some of the overtime pay. In 2018, overtime was nearly $8,900.

Other departments logging more than $1,000 in overtime in 2018 were the auditor’s office ($1,823), IT ($1,209) and Extension ($1,317).

Overall, Ewing said for the amount of staff it has, the county does a good job.

“We watch overtime closely,” he said.