Per diem system can work well — with proper guidelines

In the wake of the defeat of two incumbent commissioners, the pending retirement of a third, plus the embarrassment of a fourth over the taking of excessive per diem payments, the Morrison County Board is considering changing the way that commissioners are compensated.

Before they throw the baby out with the bath water, however, they and the public need to give this proposal further thought. Currently, the commissioners receive an annual salary of $21,328 plus $55 in per diem for any day they attend a meeting. The five-year average of per diem payments per commissioner has been $8,800 annually, so total compensation, not including benefits like health care, would be just over $30,000.

Commissioner Don Meyer ran afoul of the state auditor, when the auditor discovered that Meyer had taken two per diem payments on the same day. Meyer ended up paying back about $3,520.

Now the commissioners are thinking about doing away with per diems altogether. However, the problem wasn’t per diems per se. The problem was that the county didn’t have clear guidelines on when per diem should be claimed and how much.

The concept of per diem payments remains sound. The per diem system was designed to encourage commissioners to attend meetings. If commissioners receive a straight salary, they can show up for the monthly board meeting and not much else, and receive their pay. On the other hand, if a commissioner wants to educate himself by attending countless committee and interagency meetings, he receives no benefit other than his own self-improvement. The pay remains the same.

The public benefits from well-informed commissioners, and by offering the per diem carrot, it encourages commissioners to work at their job. What’s needed are just a few sound principles. First, that commissioners will accept only the agreed upon county per diem once per day no matter how many meetings are attended. Second, that whenever an agency outside county government has per diem available, the commissioner will apply for and accept that per diem, reimbursing the county for the amount of the outside per diem.

With the goal of maintaining a well-informed, hard-working county board, we urge the commissioners to retain the per diem system. Given the responsibilities of their jobs, that would be in the public’s best interest.