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Per diem payments, expenses add to Crow Wing County Board base salary

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news Brainerd, 56401

Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

Crow Wing County paid $12,550 in per diem reimbursements in addition to the base salary and expenses for commissioners in 2013.

Commissioners have a base salary of $28,051, which is largely unchanged since 2008. In addition to the base salary, commissioners may claim per diems, or $50 to attend additional meetings, and expenses submitted such as meals or mileage.

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“I just think our salary is enough to compensate for those extra meetings,” said Commissioner Doug Houge, who does not take per diem payments. Houge, District 5, has a full-time job in addition to owning a business in Crosby. He attends regular board meetings, but is rarely at the board’s committee of the whole sessions. Houge said he does go to events and meetings that pertain directly to District 5 and Cuyuna country.

“I do have to prioritize the meetings I attend just because of my work schedule. ... I’m very serious about attending those (meetings) that impact my district directly,” he said. Houge hasn’t been a big fan of meetings out of the area. He said other meetings, such as the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), sometimes go beyond the scope and focus of county government.

“Those that can attend I applaud them for doing it,” he said.

The newest board member, Commissioner Paul Koering, District 1, previously suggested the board go to a straight salary and stop per diem payments as Morrison County did.

“The first couple of months that I was on the board I took some mileage and then I came to the conclusion I’m in town everyday so I stopped taking any mileage,” Koering said. He lives in Fort Ripley and owns a business in Baxter. “I would prefer to change the salary dynamic to just a straight salary and not have per diem but I don’t feel the need to get into a big fight over that so I’m just content leaving it the way it is.”

Koering said he takes per diem for some meetings that he is officially appointed to attend but when he is asked to attend others, such as township meetings, he doesn’t seek reimbursement. Attending those meetings, he said, is part of the job.

Koering said people might think commissioners are overpaid. But he said the elected officials are basically on call as constituents reach out to them at all hours and there is a lot of work for the job. It’s not, he said, just a few hours for a meeting every two weeks.

Commissioner Paul Thiede, District 2, said it’s reasonable his transportation expenses are higher as he lives farther from the courthouse. The Pequot Lakes area resident said his trip to Brainerd is a 52-mile round trip.

One of the points against putting expenses into a straight salary, Thiede said, is trying to include the numbers for all five commissioners into one base pay. The difference in mileage and attendance would not make for a simple answer, Thiede said. And, Thiede noted, he’s routinely opposed pay increases for the board but if expenses were lumped into the salary he could appear self-serving when seeking compensation for the additional mileage.

As for AMC, Thiede said attending the sessions is also a way to represent alternative views. He added it’s hard for those not attending to complain about AMC’s positions. Thiede said there are topics of general interest such as transportation.

“I am more willing to invest dollars in being engaged in AMC for that reason,” Thiede said. The per diem discussion is appropriate to have, Thiede said, but it’s a difficult one to put equivalency to with five different people from different areas and different levels of engagement or distances to travel.

Doing away with per diem and keeping expenses would be less objectionable, Thiede said. Meetings reported to the county board are permissible for per diem reimbursement.

“I think that’s a personal decision that you have to make yourself,” Thiede said about taking the per diem, adding the responsibility rests with the individual commissioner to justify to taxpayers the value of attending specific meetings.

If it’s a documented published meeting, Thiede said, the per diem should be given but he’s bothered by the idea of being docked by the state auditor if a report is missed. He said he doesn’t have a problem with the oversight. The county board does the same thing for its staff. What Thiede said he does have a problem with is the secretary of state watching those expenses and if a meeting report isn’t given, he doesn’t like an auditor giving a black mark.

“No one’s hiding anything there,” he said.

As far as taking mileage, Thiede said he didn’t make the rules but follows them and his effort has gone into keeping the salary and per diem reimbursement down. Thiede pointed to the tax levy for the last few years and said the taxpayers are getting a pretty good investment for the money they are paying him to do the job.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom, District 3, said the reimbursement system is working well.

“It would be different if the work load was equal,” Nystrom said. “There are some people who have a lot of time. This is their full-time job. They can go to their meetings. ... There is heavy lifting to be done by the county commissioners.”

Nystrom noted joint powers agreements and boards such as the Kitchigami Library Board or airport commission. “We need to have people on all on these boards to look after the interests of Crow Wing County. They are spending our money and we want the services.”

“It’s always the voters who are making the decision,” Nystrom said. “If the voters in my district don’t think I’m representing them on the Crow Wing County Board, they have their opportunity to say so next fall and that’s true of all the commissioners. ... It’s all about our employer and that is the voters.”

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, District 4, said the per diem and expense subject isn’t one that comes up from people in her district.

If the committees were divided equally and everyone attended, she said a base salary may work.

“There are some of us who attend a lot more meetings and some, because of jobs attend, very few if any,” Franzen said.

Franzen said if she’s been assigned to a meeting, she takes a per diem and she goes to many meetings just to be informed without taking reimbursement for them. Franzen, of Baxter, said she takes mileage for other meetings but not the regular county board sessions.

If some people think commissioners just go to meetings to increase per diem payments, Franzen said: “I can only speak for myself. I don’t do that. I go to additional meetings and I don’t charge the county for that.”

Franzen said the system of per diem and expense reimbursement works and is equitable. She said she doesn’t have a problem with the state auditor’s oversight.

“I think it’s fair. I think the state does what it needs to. I don’t see it as a problem.”

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.

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