Compensation packages draw disagreement
By Emily Bialkowski
Few agenda items stir as much unsaid tension as salary negotiations for those holding supervisory positions in the county. The Houston County Board discussed and voted on increases for non-represented employees and elected officials at their Dec. 18 meeting.
Eighteen non-represented employees, those who do not belong to a union, were granted a 1 percent increase in 2012 and another 1 percent in 2013. Some of the employees will also be eligible for step increases based on years of service. The change will cost the county a total of $312,449 and has been budgeted for in 2013.
This decision is consistent with what the county agreed to with union employees, but it did not receive unanimous approval.
Commissioners Jack Miller and Justin Zmyewski voted against with commissioners Steve Schuldt, Teresa Walter and Tom Bjerke voting in favor of the increase.
Driving up some of the expense is medical coverage. “The cost this year was driven by very significant health services by a fair number of persons,” Tess Arrick-Kruger, human resources director, said.
“I was hoping, and I guess we had kind of planned, that our health insurance changes would hold steady,” Miller said.
With insurance companies looking over historic trends in medical care, it may be three years before a leveling off of health insurance costs is realized for the county.
The board also discussed the salaries of five non-represented elected officials, including auditor, treasurer, sheriff, recorder and county attorney, who have not had raises since 2010.
Concern over salary compression — a situation that occurs when there is only a small difference in pay between employees regardless of their skills or experience — was expressed by Arrick-Kruger, who said, “Salary compression from a human resources perspective can impact your ability to retain qualified employees.”
To avoid such a scenario, one recommendation was to give an across-the-board 4 percent increase to the five officials. But Miller took issue with one in particular.
He said, “An increase to our sheriff would put him close to what the Winona sheriff makes. Would you pay the CEO of a company with thousands of employees the same as a CEO with, say, a couple hundred employees?”
Walter said she didn’t feel it was appropriate to single out any one person, and Bjerke agreed.
“These people have to be re-elected to this position. The public will pull them out if they’re not doing a good job.
“Because of the union we’ve given increases to everyone else. I don’t think we’re giving them an exorbitant raise. I don’t think they should be penalized because we think they are getting more than what the county up north is getting.”
Questions about how state law affects such discussion were presented, and Arrick-Kruger said the only consistent message from the state is that elected officials have the option of challenging arbitrary adjustments. In that light, she recommended an analysis be done on the positions so the board would have some sort of solid tool to guide such decisions.
The board agreed and voted 4 to 1 to increase the elected officials’ salaries by 4 percent, with Zmyewski voting against.
Finally, the board agreed to freeze their salary at $18,687 per year. The Houston County Board of Commissioners has frozen their salary since 2007.
At the Dec. 11 county board meeting the commissioners unanimously agreed to pursue state bonding money to offset the cost of a runway overlay at the airport.
Airport maintenance is a lingering necessity for the county, and previous discussions to extend the runway and/or install GPS-guided landing equipment have fallen into a void created by other budget priorities.
The project is estimated to cost $633,000 with the county’s portion being $14,000. That said, County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski drew the lucky straw and had to inform the board that an additional $20,000 needs to be found to pay for the overlay on the aprons.
“If we go forward with the paving project the entitlement funds would cover 100 percent of runway costs, but the apron area would be 95 percent state aid and 5 percent local. That is not a budgeted item right now,” Pogodzinski said.
“I recommend the county board finds $20,000 to put toward the paving project. If we don’t have a contractor in place by April, state funds disappear, and then the local match would be $50,000.”
The county’s budget already needs more than $370,000 in cuts to maintain a 9 percent levy increase, so the recommendation presents a great burden.
Miller asked if the Friends of the Airport Group has any funds to help offset the expense. “They are the recipients of this work,” Miller said.
Pogodzinski said he will check on that.
The board agreed to hire Bolton & Menk has their latest third-party consultant for a proposed frac sand mine along Highway 16 in Yucatan Township. A consultant hired in November backed out, citing possible conflicts of interest.
This new consultant is charging roughly the same amount — about $13,000 — and will hold public informational meetings as part of their work.
Environmental Services Director Rick Frank said, “They have done third party reviews before and have done Environmental Assessment Worksheets before. They assured the county they can perform the duties.”
Zmyewski said he also felt confident about the selection. “They were well aware and in tune to the fact that they would be in the spotlight. They seemed very knowledgeable.”
Due to the Christmas holiday, the next regular county board meeting is set for Wednesday, Dec. 26 at 9 a.m.