County leaders: It’s full-time work

FAIRMONT – Those who have served as a county commissioner will say it’s full-time work. Commissioners also see a higher pay than most city council or school board positions.

How much do commissioners cost? For 2013, the total for all five Martin County commissioners’ salaries, per diems and health insurance was $197,679. Out of a $21.7 million budget, commissioner compensation accounts for 0.9 percent of the annual budget.

“There are a number of counties where commissioners are full-time positions,” explained Commissioner Steve Pierce. “For a commission, it is a larger job, more responsibility, and a bigger budget.”

“The roles are different at the county level with all the committees and the number of meetings they attend,” said Martin County Coordinator Scott Higgins.

Martin County commissioners this year will see a 2 percent increase in salary from $22,040 to $22,480. The 2 percent hike also was given to all full-time county employees.

The chairman of the commission gets a $1,000 bonus, while the vice-chair receives $500.

In comparison, Fairmont City Council members receive $2,400 for the year, with the mayor receiving $4,800. Fairmont Area School Board members receive $1,800 per year, with the chairman getting $2,400.

In Martin County, commissioners all get the same pay, with the exception of the bonuses for chairman and vice chairman.

“It gets kind of weird, because I’ve been a commissioner for 22 years,” Pierce said. “Elliot (Belgard) and Steve (Flohrs) have been on for a year, yet we all get the same pay.”

Pierce recalled that when he first began serving as a commissioner in 1992, his salary was $14,900.

State law allows board members to receive compensation for the official work they perform for a public entity, in the form of a salary or per diem. In 1994, the Minnesota Attorney General stated: “County commissioners are authorized to receive annual salaries and may also be paid per diem for performing the duties of office including work on committees under the direction of the board and individual service as commissioners when required by law.”

In 1945, the law dictated maximum salaries for commissioners, based on the size of their county and land values. Maximum salaries were removed from the law in 1967, and county boards were allowed to set the salary of board members, with new salaries going into effect Jan. 1 of the next year. In 2009, language was added specifying that a resolution to decrease commissioners’ salaries may take effect at any time.

“By law, the county has to set a salary for all elected officials,” Pierce said. “That includes the sheriff, the county attorney and the recorder. And ourselves.”

Martin County commissioners recently set minimum salaries of $65,790 for the auditor/treasurer and sheriff; $49,608 for the county recorder; and $75,000 for the county attorney. The amounts must be set by commissioners at the start of an election year.

In recent years, commissioners have tried to stick with the same increases allowed for full-time county employees.

“We take the same percentage, since we don’t have step increases,” Pierce said.

Salaries have traditionally been interpreted to apply to regular board meetings, while special meetings, committee assignments and other duties are usually compensated with per diems, which are paid per day, not per meeting.

“Sometimes, while they’re together here, they will try to do as much as possible,” Higgins said.

Per diems can range up to $75 per day, with 45 different committees that need attention divided among the five commissioners.

Many of these committees require at least two commissioners to serve, which leaves each commissioner covering at least a third of committees.

Commissioners can claim no more than the $75 per diem each day, but they can choose to receive less.

“Sometimes, they only charge half for a half-day,” Higgins said. “It’s up to the discretion of the commissioners.”

For 2013, a total of $14,095 was paid to commissioners for per diems. Newcomer Flohrs had the highest amount with $4,480, because of additional meetings and training needed for new commissioners.

Pierce received $3,000, Dan Schmidtke $2,820, Belgard $1,995 and Steve Donnelly $1,800.

In comparison, Fairmont City Council members receive a per diem of up to $40 per day, while Fairmont Area School Board members get $25 for a half day and $70 for a full day.

Pierce points out the time spent and per diems collected depend greatly on what each commissioner is assigned to for committees, and the area they represent.

“If you are the chair or vice chair, there’s more,” Pierce said. “For example, last week they spent a whole day doing job interviews, and then they also had job performance evaluations …

“For the three commissioners outside of Fairmont, they are constantly dealing with ditch and drainage issues. I don’t know how they manage it with everything else.

“With the committees, some vary and only have a few occasional meetings, while others meet once a month or more. Personnel and building committees are ones that take up a lot of time.

“We’re also required to have representatives on regional boards like Region 9, Minnesota River Valley, and those meetings are held up in Mankato, so you’re taking the better part of a day traveling, then taking part in a meeting for half a day.”

Commissioners receive the same benefits as full-time county employees, such as health insurance and a Public Employee Retirement Account.

“All county employees are required to take the coverage, even if they have coverage elsewhere,” Higgins explained.

“It’s the way the group plan works,” Pierce confirmed. “We have to be covered, and the county pays the premium.”

Fairmont City Council members are offered health insurance, with no cost for single coverage or a 30 percent pay for a family package. Health insurance is not offered to Fairmont Area School Board members.

So how does Martin County compare to other Minnesota counties when it comes to commissioner pay? According to survey, Martin County lies in the average for its population.

Faribault County commissioners were paid $17,959 last year, Jackson County commissioners $17,000 and Watonwan County commissioners $18,850.

However, population numbers also play a role with a 20,475 estimated population in Martin County to 14,553 in Faribault County, 11,268 in Jackson County and 11,850 in Watonwan County.

Faribault County commissioners also gave themselves a 2 percent increase for 2014, raising their salaries to $18,319.

Blue Earth County, with a population of 65,091 in 2012, has a commissioner salary of $33,842. Redwood County, with a population of 16,059, has a commissioner salary at $26,915.

“I’ve always said I’m not in it for the money, but yet if it wasn’t a paid position I wouldn’t do it,” Pierce admits. “There is a lot of time and hassle and it is a major job. You don’t like to feel like you’re doing something for nothing. If it wasn’t paid, it would be interesting to see how many would still be in it.”