Crow Wing County Board: Per diem increase requested

Members of the Crow Wing County planning commission and board of adjustment are asking the county board to raise their per diems. At the committee of the whole meeting last week, Don Hales said members of the planning commission voted unanimously...

Members of the Crow Wing County planning commission and board of adjustment are asking the county board to raise their per diems.

At the committee of the whole meeting last week, Don Hales said members of the planning commission voted unanimously to ask for the increase.

"I think ours is probably one of the higher responsibility boards that you have," Hales said.

Members of all county committees, including the county board, currently receive a $50 per diem for attending meetings. The planning commission and board of adjustment reviews variance requests, conditional use permits, zoning map amendments and plat changes. Several citizen committees were eliminated or combined with others in 2008, County Administrator Tim Houle said. The planning commission and board of adjustment were separate committees and each met biweekly before they were combined. The work that was once done in four separate weekly meetings is now done in one monthly meeting.

Hales suggested the county board consider establishing tiers of citizen committees, identifying those with higher responsibilities that should receive higher compensation. Hales said between the four current members, they have a total of 34 years of experience.


"We make some very important decisions. ... We're a very dedicated board," Hales said. "We spend probably three to four hours, maybe five hours depending on the monthly schedule, in prep time."

Chairman Paul Koering told Hales the county board appreciated the work the planning commission does, but said it would be difficult for the county to compensate the board members for all of their time, including prep work.

Hales said they were looking for more of a "show of support" from the county commissioners.

Houle said the reductions in citizen committees were some of several cutbacks done in county government at the time of the Great Recession.

"If we moved them back to where they all were, you would end up with a levy where it was," Houle said. "You can't undo every one of the decisions you made at the beginning of the Great Recession and expect that you're going to end up somewhere different than you were."

Hales said he did not expect any of the commission members to resign should the county board decide to keep the per diem the same.

"On the other hand, I think you need to consider the fact that the responsibility that's on this board and the money that we ultimately save the county and the job that we do for the citizens of the county is pretty important," Hales said.

Koering pointed out given the amount of time the members of the planning commission devote to their work, they were not earning minimum wage at the $50 per diem rate. He asked Chris Pence, land services supervisor, to weigh in on the commission's request.


"I think there's value from a staff perspective of wanting to maintain continuity on our boards and wanting to make sure we're not seeing a big turnover," Pence said.

Pence noted the county has invested financially in the commission members through training, and it was not only the length of time commission members have served but the quality of work they do. Given the nature of what the planning commission and board of adjustment handles, these meetings have the potential to be contentious, Pence said, but they are not with the current commission members.

"We simply don't have that because we have a current board that treats people well, treats them right at meetings," Pence said. "That being said, any increase in per diem is going to have an impact on budgets."

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said she spent the last three months looking for someone to fill a District 3 vacancy on the planning commission and had difficulty finding someone willing to commit.

"This is a lot of work and a lot of responsibility and a lot of training for $50, are you kidding?" Nystrom said. "And of course, it's never the money. You couldn't pay these people probably what they are worth. But it was an interesting and frustrating exercise."

Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said it was not only the planning commission facing this problem, noting she'd spent eight years trying to find someone willing to serve on another of the county's committees.

"I can't even count how many people I asked to this one board and couldn't find anybody," Franzen said.

Franzen clarified with Hales that commission members also receive a per diem for on-site visits in preparation for meetings.


Commissioner Paul Thiede said every committee could come before the board and make the case it's an important committee.

"This one, I agree, is a pretty important committee," Thiede said. "But let's not forget, we have invested a great deal of time, money and effort in reorganizing planning and zoning since Don (Hales) came on the board, and it has made their job much easier to do. ... This is the start of a domino. If we do it here, we'll do it elsewhere."

Thiede added despite his district being the furthest from the courthouse, he does not have trouble finding people to join committees, and it's a public service.

"I've said it every campaign I've been in, you can't pay me enough to take this job, but you shouldn't," Thiede said. "That's what public service is about in many cases, and in this case as well."

Koering asked Houle how it would affect the county budgets should every committee ask for a per diem increase.

Houle said in a $70 million corporation, the fiscal impact of increasing per diems would not be material.

"From a materiality standpoint, it's not significant. From a symbolism and consistency standpoint, it has the potential to be," Houle said. "What message do you want to telegraph to the public, to the organization, to the appointees, about how high a value you wish to place on that public dollar? It's a values question, and I can't help answer that for you."

Nystrom asked Houle whether Crow Wing County was an outlier in how it compensates committee members.


Houle said $50 is a common per diem rate, but noted Cass County pays $75 to all committee members. Although most counties pay the same per diem rate to all citizen committees, Houle said if there is a rate differential, it is commonly a planning commission or board of adjustment that receives a higher rate.

Koering pointed out county commissioners have not accepted an increase in pay themselves in at least eight years, although commissioners do receive a salary in addition to per diems and mileage reimbursement. Koering thanked Hales for coming and said he and other members would think about his proposal.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

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 or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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