Morrison County Sheriff’s salary appeal settled to maintain effective working relationship

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer

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Sheriff Michel Wetzel’s salary appeal, allowed for under Minnesota Statutes, was settled Tuesday by the Morrison County Commissioners for less than half of the amount Wetzel requested.

The County Board approved a resolution setting Wetzel’s salary at $98,118 for 2012, retroactive to Jan. 1. This is a 3.15 percent increase from 2011. Commissioners Don Meyer and Duane Johnson voted against the settlement.

The County Board felt that it was in the best interests of the public to save taxpayer funds, and to help maintain a good working relationship between the County Board and the County Sheriff, said Administrator Deb Gruber.

The commissioners agreed in 2006 to add the four elected county department heads — sheriff, county attorney, auditor/treasurer and recorder — to the step system of compensation used for other county employees, rather than using statutory criteria to set salaries. The reason for doing this was to promote uniformity and continuity within the compensation system, according to Resolution 2010-0059.

Wetzel figured that after about four or five years, that would allow his salary to catch up with the other two large department  heads — social services and public works — whose salaries were more than his.

“But, in 2009 and 2010, the step increases were frozen for myself and County Attorney Brian Middendorf, even while everyone else who was due a step increase received their increase,” said Wetzel.

In 2011, Wetzel and all other employees who were eligible received their step increases. The Board had determined that the continued application of the county’s pay plan provided greater savings to the citizens of Morrison County than using statutory criteria, according to Resolution 2010-001.

Then in 2012, Wetzel’s and Middendorf’s steps were again frozen, while everyone else who was due a step increase received it.

Abiding by a labor agreement with county employees, those employees who had been at the top of their eight-step plan and had not been receiving increases were given an additional step increase for 2012 as the county moved into a new nine-step plan.

As stated in Resolution 2012-001 regarding the four elected officials’ salaries, the Board chose in January of this year to return to the process of setting the salary of elected officials utilizing the statutory elements, removing them from the step system.

According to Resolution 2010-0059, this means that the Board is now required to make salary comparisons with elected officials in other counties when setting elected officials’ salaries.

“The commissioners ignored the agreement they made with me. At that point, my salary was 8 percent behind where it should have been, and that was the starting point for my appeal,” said Wetzel.

“The salary set for me was still 15 percent behind the average of the sheriff salaries in two of our surrounding counties, Mille Lacs and Stearns, where the sheriffs have similar tenure to mine,” he said.

“I didn’t say anything in 2009 or in 2010 when only my step and the county attorney’s were frozen, but this pattern of setting elected officials’ salaries based upon the political considerations of the commissioners has to stop,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel pointed out that the four elected department heads’ salaries are printed in the paper, whereas the salaries of all other department heads, who are appointed, are not publicized.

“Those appointed heads move up the pay scale without causing political heat for the Board,” said Wetzel.

“We went along with [former county administrator] Tim Houle on the step program,” said Meyer. “I think it was a mistake to do that for elected department heads.”

The economy changed so much that the sheriff’s and county attorney’s steps were frozen, said Meyer.

“When considering the sheriff’s salary this year, we noted that it had gone up $30,000 in 10 years; $95,500 was not a shabby wage,” he said.

Johnson voted against Wetzel’s salary increase for 2012, after having voted for an increase in 2011. “The county doesn’t have the money to give everyone a 4 percent raise every year,” he said. “This year we gave it to the auditor/treasurer and the recorder.”

“The step agreement with the elected officials happened before I came on the Board, and it’s now officially gone,” said Johnson. “That agreement meant that the elected officials automatically got their step increases and we didn’t think that was right when tough times came. That’s why we froze the steps. Taxes are high and we don’t want them to go higher.”

“Morrison County is getting maxed out on its ability to pay,” said Meyer. “I’m getting a tremendous amount of pressure from people, saying that we need to hold the line.”

“Tenure or not, people are telling me that the government spends too much money,” he said.

“There have never been any complaints about my performance or budget, but I was told I make a lot of money,” said Wetzel. “Pay increases were given to people who make more money than me.”

County Administrator Deb Gruber confirmed that pay raises were given in 2012 to county employees with higher salaries than Wetzel’s.

“If they’d given me the same raise they gave the other 235 county employees except the county attorney, it would have cost $3,800. Instead it cost the county $3,000 for my raise plus $3,000 – 5,000 in attorney fees,” said Wetzel. “That contradicts the assertion by the Board that they were most concerned with saving taxpayer money.”

“At the end of the day, I agreed to less than the 4 percent everyone else got in order not to have this thing dragging on,” Wetzel said.

“It’s all about trying to find a balance between what’s a fair salary for either an elected official or an employee, and what’s fair for the taxpayer,” said Commissioner Jeff Schilling. “I voted to settle on the recommendation of our legal counsel.”

Middendorf would like to see some consistency and predictability return to this process. “A person never knows where they stand from year to year,” he said.

“It’s always a delicate balancing act,” said Schilling.