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Crow Wing County Board: Counting commissioner compensation

Crow Wing County taxpayers covered costs roughly equal to the salary of one more county commissioner in per diem and expenses payouts to commissioners in 2015.

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Crow Wing County taxpayers covered costs roughly equal to the salary of one more county commissioner in per diem and expenses payouts to commissioners in 2015.

In addition to their annual salaries, the five county commissioners are compensated for attending meetings and for expenses. County Administrator Tim Houle said this is standard practice among Minnesota counties.

"I wouldn't need a whole hand to count the number of counties that pay a straight salary," Houle said. "Those that do typically have a marginally higher salary ... taking into account for the historical average of per diem and expenses."

County commissioners earned $28,595 for salaries in 2015, a 2 percent increase over 2014. Total per diem and expenses submitted to the county by the commissioners was $29,416.74. Per diem payments are $50 per day on days when county commissioners attend meetings, an amount that has not varied in at least the last eight years. Expenses cover mileage; the cost of lodging and meals is covered if meeting attendance includes an overnight stay.

Houle said commissioners are eligible to claim per diem for regular county board meetings, the meetings of assigned committees and other meetings reported to the full county board. Exceptions are those meetings purely political in nature, such as a campaign event, or the annual convening of the board of equalization, a meeting for which state statute bars compensation. Houle said besides per diem payments, commissioners are compensated for expenses in the same way all county employees are.

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"No commissioner can make a decision that impacts their compensation all by themselves," Houle said.

All three commissioners who spoke with the Brainerd Dispatch Wednesday said they did not submit for per diem or mileage compensation for regular board meetings, although practices varied on other meetings. Commissioners Doug Houge and Rachel Reabe Nystrom were unable to be reached for comment.

Commissioners must submit an itemized list of meeting attendance and expenses to the auditor-treasurer's office, and there must be supporting evidence proving attendance. This can be in the form of meeting minutes or spoken reports at board meetings. In 2015, commissioners received compensation for a total of 359 meetings, a payout of $17,950. This was an increase of $3,450 over 2014.

Houle said there is no specific participation requirement for meeting attendance. Some of the commissioners are more vocal than others, Houle said, although he does not believe this is an accurate measure of participation. Commissioner attendance at committee meetings to retrieve "alternative and independent sources of information" is something county residents benefit from, Houle added.

When asked if commissioners could show up just long enough to have attendance counted and then leave, Houle said he's heard of this happening over the course of his 20-year career, but never in Crow Wing County.

"You tend to hear, through grapevines, and I haven't heard that here," Houle said.

Commissioners explain payments

Commissioner Paul Thiede was the most highly compensated of the board members in 2015, earning $40,345 total. He earned $5,450 in per diem payments and $6,300 in expenses. Thiede said his participation on the statewide Aquatic Invasive Species Advisory Committee, the Minnesota Inter-County Association and the Association of Minnesota Counties-all of which meet in either St. Cloud or the Twin Cities-contributed to his mileage and lodging costs.

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"I don't think my philosophy has changed since I was first elected to office," Thiede said. "It's there as a tool to encourage people to take part. ... It's a personal choice on every office holder that's there. I have no problem with someone refusing it (per diem) if they don't want to take it. I have no problem myself taking it, if it's there."

Thiede said although he supports the idea behind the additional compensation, he is not in favor of increasing the payments. He reports all committee meetings to which he is officially assigned and any others he reports to the board. He does not include more informal meetings with constituents, he said.

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen was the second-most highly compensated commissioner in 2015, earning $36,644. Of this, $5,900 was in per diem and $2,149 was in expenses. Franzen was the highest per diem earner, reporting attendance at 118 meetings. This accounted for one-third of all per diem payouts.

Franzen said she only takes per diems or submits mileage expenses for the committees she is assigned to. She did not have any overnight lodging covered in 2015, she said.

Franzen said she was not in favor of a flat salary for commissioners.

"If all commissioners attended the same amount of meetings, but that doesn't happen," Franzen said. "I think that this is the only fair way to be compensated."

Commissioner Paul Koering was the second-least compensated member of the county board. He earned $32,055 in 2015, accepting $660 in expenses payments and $2,800 in per diem. Koering said he does not submit mileage at all, including out-of-town meetings. His expense payment covers a monthly stipend for the use of his personal cellphone.

"The reason for that is, I'm in town (Brainerd) every day anyway, so I just feel like I can just forego any mileage expense," Koering said. "I think public service isn't all about making money. It's about giving back to the public and trying to make your community better, and so I don't have to get compensated for every little thing that I do."

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Koering said he is in favor of a flat salary for commissioners, but he feels he does not have support from other county board members to make this change.

Nystrom was the middle earner on the county board, receiving $34,092 total-$3,800 in per diem and $1,697 in expenses.

Houge earned the least of all commissioners at $29,255, taking home about $11,000 less than Thiede. He received $660 in expense payments. Houge did not collect any per diem payments, a choice he has historically made. Following the release of 2014 commissioner compensation data, Houge said he believed the salary appropriately covers the expected duties of commissioners. He also said he did not attend as many meetings as other commissioners, although he does appear at those directly affecting his district, which covers the Cuyuna Range area.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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