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Nobles County commissioners hash out 2018 salaries

WORTHINGTON -- As Nobles County moves into the final weeks of 2017, its finance department is still crunching numbers on the 2018 budget, whittling down a proposed 5.94 percent levy increase from September to a 3.2 percent levy increase today. Th...

WORTHINGTON - As Nobles County moves into the final weeks of 2017, its finance department is still crunching numbers on the 2018 budget, whittling down a proposed 5.94 percent levy increase from September to a 3.2 percent levy increase today. The budget and levy won’t be finalized until county commissioners meet Dec. 19.

County Finance Director Jerry Vyskocil said the newly proposed levy does not reflect a pay increase for elected officials or a change in per diem rates paid to commissioners for meeting attendance. His report led to a lengthy discussion about salaries during a Wednesday morning board work session.

Prior to the meeting, commissioners received a list comparing salaries of elected officials with those in other counties within District 8, as well as select counties across the state. What the comparison failed to disclose, however, was the tenure of those elected officials, qualifications, experience and job performance.

Sheriff Kent Wilkening said he appreciated the wage comparison, but said experience should be considered. His 2017 salary was about $1,100 less than the Lyon County Sheriff, who oversees a staff and jail of the same size and has just 10 years experience. By comparison, Wilkening has served as Nobles County sheriff for 18 years.

“Because these other sheriffs haven’t been in the position as long as I have, they’re still on their county pay scale,” Wilkening said. “They’ll get a 2 or 3 percent COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment), and they’re also getting a step increase.”

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He, along with other elected officials who have surpassed all nine steps in the county’s pay scale, no longer receives a step increase.

Wilkening requested a 2018 salary of $111,020 - a $3,331 increase over his current salary.

“I think what I’ve asked for is reasonable,” he told commissioners.

He then said the Lyon County attorney receives $7,000 more per year than the Nobles County attorney and has fewer years in office. Wilkening also called attention to the Lyon County administrator’s $112,260 a year salary, compared to the Nobles County administrator’s salary of $126,000.

“And the county administrator in Lyon County has been there for 14 years,” Wilkening said. The Nobles County administrator has been in his post less than five years.

“You’re lucky I’m not asking for more compared to the county administrator (salary),” Wilkening said. “Here, there’s almost $20,000 difference between me and the county administrator, and that’s just wage.”

Wilkening said his requested increase was to “keep up with the younger guys” who receive both a COLA and step increase. He said he is the second-longest serving sheriff in the state right now.

Kusz said her salary is the same as another county attorney who has been in the position for just 15 months, compared to her 30 years of public service.

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“Would you want to swap him for me?” she asked, noting her seven years experience as assistant Lyon County attorney before her 18 years as assistant Nobles County attorney. She was named county attorney in 2012.

“When experience is factored in, I am not wildly compensated here,” Kusz said. “You have one of the more experienced people here.”

Kusz had requested a salary increase of $4,286 in 2018 - going from $113,454 to $117,740.

“I believe my performance justifies this. I think you’re getting good service from me - better than average, certainly better than if I had 10 years less experience,” she said.

Commissioner Justin Ahlers said he didn’t like the idea of giving employees a 2.25 percent salary increase and then giving a greater increase to the department head (elected official), saying it could create animosity among employees.

However, as Human Resources Director Sue Luing noted, numerous employees receive both a cost of living adjustment and a step increase. Each step increase is equivalent to about a 2.7 percent pay increase.

Ultimately, commissioners decided on new salary amounts for each of the elected officials that will need to be voted on later this month. Those amounts include a 3.5 percent pay increase ($117,425 salary) for the county attorney; a 6.44 percent increase ($83,000 salary) for the auditor-treasurer (COLA and step increase); a 3.5 percent pay increase ($78,043 salary) for the recorder; and a 3 percent pay increase ($110,919 salary) for the sheriff. They chose not to be consistent with the percentage increases as a 3.5 percent increase was more than the sheriff had requested.

Commissioners then addressed their own compensation, agreeing to a 2.25 percent salary increase. Again, since this was merely discussion during a work session, they will need to vote during a board meeting later this month to make the increase official.

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Per diems were also discussed at length, with Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. pushing for an increase due to the amount of time he spends in meetings. Demuth said the $100 per day limit is just not enough.

He suggested doubling the per diem amount to $200 per day, with commissioners using discretion on when they would charge that versus a lower amount, depending on how much of their day was spent in meetings.

Luing said in a comparison with other counties, the highest per diem she found was $120 per day. However, commissioner salaries in that same county were considerably higher.

In the end, commissioners agreed on raising the maximum daily per diem to $150 per day. This could impact the overall levy, but because commissioners don’t know how often they will request the maximum per diem, it was decided any overages in the commissioner budget would be taken from the county’s contingency fund.

“I think it’s discretion of the commissioners (on per diem pay requests),” County Administrator Tom Johnson said. “I’ve said it a hundred times, these guys are so underpaid for the amount of hours they put in.”

In other business, the board:

  • Was updated on capital improvement projects. Reroofing of the Prairie Justice Center is about 95 percent complete. Also, workers will begin erecting walls on the Adrian shop this week; work is anticipated to take three weeks. Ideal Landscape & Design has work to complete, including installation of railing in front of the Government Center.
  • Met with Tenaska Inc. representatives Scott Seier and Timberly Ross regarding the proposed Nobles 2 Wind project proposed for construction. The project will include 74 turbines, of which 64 will be 3.6 megawatts and 10 will be 2 megawatts.

Seier said permit applications were submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and are awaiting approval. A public hearing and comment period will be planned after the new year. Completion is proposed for late 2019.

  • Discussed poll pads, electronic voter registration and sign-in tools to be used at polling places. Auditor-Treasurer Beth Van Hove said the state authorized up to $7 million in grants to be split among precincts to purchase the equipment. In Nobles County, the minimum grant is $1,600 per precinct. The grant will fund 75 percent of the cost for 59 poll pads in the county, with the county’s cost estimated at more than $22,000 for the equipment, plus $9,545 annually for updates.
  • Discussed plans to host an urban lawmaker tour in Nobles County sometime next year. The commissioners want to educate the lawmakers - including key political figures in the state - on issues ranging from tax disadvantages, workforce availability, housing, transportation to the state’s buffer law.

“We don’t ask for a whole lot; we just don’t want a lot of restrictions,” Commissioner Gene Metz said.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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