Crow Wing County commissioners Paul Thiede and Rachel Reabe Nystrom's last board meeting didn't end with a whimper but with a bang of mixed emotions for the longtime officials.
Emotions ran high at the Wednesday, Dec. 26, meeting in a spirited debate about commissioner wages for next year when Thiede and Nystrom will no longer be on the five-member board.
"I think the Founding Fathers would be rolling in their graves when they see how we've created a new class of people called 'politicians,' and we somehow think we're going to be able to reward that work with the proper salary to pay for it," said Thiede, chairman of the board.
Commissioner Paul Koering made a motion at Wednesday's meeting to set the wage rate for county commissioners to $35,308, with no per diem, for 2019. Nystrom seconded Koering's motion.
"I have said it numerous times you can't pay me enough to do this job-and you shouldn't and I'm sticking to that. I don't believe you should pay me for what I have the capability of doing in the interest of the public service," Thiede said.
Koering said, "I did ask the county administrator to come up with a formula that would be, I guess, fair if you add in the per diems and to figure out a fair formula, and this is the number-$35,308. That's why it comes out to such an odd number."
County Administrator Tim Houle said the county has historically paid commissioners a fixed salary plus a per diem.
"And the only way that you're eligible to collect a per diem is if you go to a subcommittee of the board, something that we're a joint powers board member of and you are assigned to it, or you report back here at the county board meeting," Houle said.
The same five-member board, however, assigned wages on Sept. 25 for county commissioners at $30,900 for 2019, with a per diem rate of $75.
"One of the problems that I see with this reconsideration is that not all commissioners are created equal, nor do all commissioners function at the same level as everyone does in whatever reason," Thiede said.
Koering replied, "I dispute that. We are all equals on this board. ... Maybe some commissioner chooses to go to a lot more meetings than other commissioners, but that is their choice. That doesn't make them a 'super commissioner' over another fellow commissioner."
Thiede once again topped the list of board members in total earnings for salary, per diem, phone stipend, mileage and other claims for 2017, with $4,050 in per diem payments for attending meetings, $3,348.57 for travel-and $900.99 listed as "other."
Franzen, Nystrom and Koering came in the middle for total earnings received for 2017-with Franzen at $35,241.35, Nystrom at $31,590.88 and Koering at $33,537.07.
Houge also claimed the least again in total earnings for 2017, with only a phone stipend, which was $60 less than what was paid to the others, in addition to his salary at the time.
"Commissioner Koering, I'm going to be like you-not politically correct-but look at the five of us, and I can tell you that we are not, the five of us, created equal," Thiede told Koering.
"My intent was not to say we didn't have equal power ... but we are not created equal. ... There's three men and two women, here, so we're not created equal. ... We each address this job ... in a different manner. We all apply different life experiences and skills we bring to the job."
Last year, the per diem rate was increased from $50 to $75, and commissioners Rosemary Franzen, Nystrom, Koering, Thiede and Doug Houge each received a salary of $30,000 for 2018, according to Houle.
"So your annual salary is this combination of the fixed base plus as many per diems as you choose to collect based on the number of meetings that you've attended on behalf of the board," Houle told the commissioners.
"I would say that it is still the most common method for commissioners collecting salaries to collect a base salary plus a per diem. What I have noted over the course of my career, however, is that there is a slow movement from counties to move towards a fixed salary without per diem."
Between 2008-14, commissioners earned $28,051 per year. In 2015 and 2016, commissioners approved salary increases of 2 percent and 1.5 percent respectively.
"The salaries for county commissioners around the state tend to hover-if I went into outstate Minnesota-they would hover between $30,000 and $40,000 a year whether that is as a straight salary or a salary plus per diem," Houle said.
"We could go to Stearns County, and they have a straight salary. We could go to Morrison County, and they have a straight salary. Certainly in the metropolitan area, I think it's more common that they have a straight salary without per diem, but I'd say it's still not the norm."
For 2017, the county board turned down a proposed salary increase from $29,041 to $29,650 in light of a budget lawsuit sought by County Attorney Don Ryan.
"The prevalence is you go to a job and you have a salary for it, so that is-for most people-that's what it's like, you get a salary. This is the work, you are a county board member, and you get this much money," Nystrom said in arguing against per diems.
Koering said of dropping per diems, "Commissioner Thiede, you talk about transparency. To me, this is really transparent. People don't have to come here and do a public information request to see how much per diem you've gotten. They would know what the wage is."
Thiede then turned the gavel over to Vice Chair Franzen after Nystrom's support of Koering's motion and made a motion to amend Koering's motion. Thiede's amendment was to increase the proposed commissioner wage rate to $35,308, with no per diem, to $45,000 for 2019.
"I would reject that amendment as an unfriendly amendment and a grandstanding amendment," Koering said.
Thiede replied, "I will be unabashedly forthright and honest and say this is an attempt to love this thing to death because quite frankly if you're looking for a figure to pay county commissioners, so that they're going to willing step up and do this job, then let's be honest."
Thiede's total earnings for 2017 were $38,000.56. That total payment for last year for Thiede was $1,269.44 less than the total payments footed in part by county residents for him for 2016. He also received more in per diem, mileage and other payments for 2016 than last year.
"I'm very much interested in this being a public service job that people want to have in their hearts, want to serve the public in doing," Thiede said Wednesday.
Koering said about Thiede's amendment, "Being that this is your last meeting-and, Paul, I do love you, I think you're a good guy, I believe in your heart you're trying to do the right thing-but with all do respect right now, you're playing games and I don't like it."
Franzen, Nystrom, Koering, Thiede and Houge each received a salary of $29,041 for 2017, an increase of about $15 from the year before.
"I would point out the fact that you have always said, 'I have never voted for a raise, and I never will vote for a raise.' ... And if you remember back at that Sept. 25 meeting, you tried the same thing," Koering told Thiede.
"And I would remind you that you did not win your election, Paul, so apparently that grandstanding didn't work for your election."
Bill Brekken, a RE/MAX associate, beat Thiede in the Nov. 6 general election. In Brekken's first run at public office, the First Assessment District candidate finished second to the incumbent in the District 2 race for commissioner in most of its precincts but received the most votes overall.
"I didn't want to bring this up, but you're trying to, I think, in essence, you're trying to make me look bad or make the other commissioners look bad, and it's just not working, Paul," Koering told Thiede.
Thiede replied, "Commissioner Koering, nothing that has been said, will be said before the morning is over will ruin our friendship. ... I know that you're a sensitive guy-and I love you for it-but this is war, and we're going to fight this one out."
Agree to disagree
Aitkin County does not pay any of its five commissioners per diem, according to County Administrator Jessica Seibert, but it did make payments for phone and transportation, parking and/or mileage in 2017 averaging about $348 each for phone and about $2,751 each for travel.
Likewise, per diems are no longer paid to Morrison County commissioners, according to Morrison County Finance Director Steve Messerschmidt, but per diems received from other agencies are receipted back in as "miscellaneous revenue."
"I vehemently disagree with your motion. I'm even offering one that I don't agree with myself to try and kill your motion. I'm honestly upfront saying that. That's not grandstanding, Paul. That's loving that sucker to death," Thiede told Koering.
"And if that's the only way I can succeed in loving it to death then let's have it. Let's have a real conversation about the subject that's here. Are you wanting to pay people enough, so they aspire to this job simply for the salary? And if you want to do that, join me in my motion."
Houle said he arrived at $35,308, with no per diem, in an attempt to approximate the same total cost to the county as the Sept. 25 board decision of $30,900, with a per diem rate of $75.
Thiede's motion (to amend Koering's motion on the floor) to increase the commissioner wage rate to $45,000 was defeated with Koering, Houge and Nystrom voting against.
"Not everyone does the same amount of work, not everyone attends the same amount of meetings ... and it's a fair way to let the people who are doing more work have a higher salary," Franzen said of her belief in per diems and opposition to Koering's proposal.
Houge has said before he does not attend as many meetings as other commissioners, although he does appear at those directly affecting his district, which covers the Cuyuna Range area.
"There's a few of you, I think, or a couple maybe that believe certain commissioners don't attend any meetings because I, for one, have not collected per diems," Houge said in his defense.
"That does not mean that I don't attend meetings in my district. I'm probably the only commissioner, here, that does have a full-time job, so I do my best of attending what I'm able to do."
Thiede asked for a roll call vote. Nystrom, Houge and Koering voted in favor of setting the wage rate for commissioners at $35,308, with no per diem, while Franzen and Thiede voted against the Koering-championed resolution, which was eventually approved at Wednesday's meeting.