Our Opinion: Eliminating per diems long overdue
As 2018 came to a close, the Crow Wing County Board did something unexpected but welcome. It eliminated per diem payments to elected commissioners.
Commissioners had been eligible to collect a $75 per diem for meetings attended outside of those related directly to the county board—subcommittees, commissions, joint powers boards, etc.
The amount in per diems collected by individual commissioners over the years has varied wildly, with one commissioner historically never seeking any to some commissioners collecting up to $6,000 a year.
Per diems combined with salaries, phone and mileage reimbursement edged some commissioners' salaries close to $40,000 per year. And that's not including other benefits, such as health insurance or computers, afforded by the county.
Originally for 2019, the board was going to be paid a $30,900 fixed salary with a per diem rate of $75. Now, the fixed salary will be $35,308, the increase made up by averaging per diem rates.
"... 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," said Commissioner Paul Koering, who made the Dec. 26 motion to set board member salaries without per diems.
We absolutely agree with Koering. And it's not an unprecedented move—several counties in the Twin Cities area, Stearns County and Morrison County already pay their commissioners in the same manner.
Yes, commissioners will get a healthy raise and will still receive good benefits but the elimination of per diems is long overdue. In 2014 this editorial board advocated for the elimination of the per diem with a salary increase to make up for the loss. It's a position we obviously still agree with.
Our main argument for getting rid of the per diem payments is the perception, right or wrong, that commissioners were simply attending more meetings to collect more money.
Commissioners are paid a very good fixed salary to represent their districts and the county as a whole. The fixed salary alone should more than compensate an elected official attending any meeting to make policy decisions in the best interest of county residents.
Removing per diems levels the playing field, creates consistency and simplifies the process of commissioner compensation.
Most importantly, a fixed salary offers a more transparent salary structure for the county board and county residents. Simply attending more meetings doesn't necessarily offer more value to a commissioner's work representing their constituents. Value comes from votes taken and policies enacted.
The removal of per diems, however, shouldn't deter commissioners from continuing to attend meetings outside of the county board. If it does, those commissioners were attending those meetings for the wrong reason. Being an elected official is about public service, not collecting a paycheck.