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Becker 'minimum salaries' far below actual wages

Thinking of running for county office? The Becker County Board set minimum salaries Tuesday for elected department heads.

The salaries are far below what those department heads are actually paid, but if a new person is elected, they can negotiate for a higher salary with the county board -- based on their qualifications for the job, said County Administrator Brian Berg.

The minimum salary for the new auditor-treasurer position was set at $45,000.

Auditor Keith Brekken earns $63,795. Treasurer Ryan Tangen earns $61,697.

The minimum salary for county attorney was set at $48,000. County Attorney Joe Evans earns $107,877. His salary is tied to a percentage of what a district judge makes.

The minimum salary for sheriff was set at $48,000. Sheriff Tim Gordon earns $73,526.

The board set the minimum salary for county recorder at $38,000 per year. County Recorder Darlene Maneval earns $53,560.

All the positions are up for election this November.

Commissioners Bob Bristlin and Harry Salminen are also up for re-election. Both said Tuesday they'd like to wait a few weeks before announcing whether they will seek re-election.

Filing opens July 5 and closes July 18. All positions are four-year terms.

The positions of county surveyor and county coroner are also up for election, but they are not full-time positions and no minimum salary was required to be set, Berg said.

Berg, who earns $94,484 a year, said the board was supposed to have set the minimum salaries in January, because it is an election year, but the issue didn't come up until the board acted March 28 to combine the offices of auditor and treasurer, and a salary needed to be established.

He said he simply took the minimum salaries established four years ago and rounded them up to even numbers.

For instance, the minimum sheriff's salary was $47,653 four years ago and he rounded it up to $48,000 this year.

State law sets minimum salaries at $7,500 per year for the offices of auditor, treasurer, recorder and sheriff, and $7,000 for county attorney, according to a memo to the board from Evans, who had been asked to research the matter.

"The action taken by the board is simply to establish the minimum to be paid for the position," Evans wrote. "This does not mean that the individual elected will be paid the minimum."

The board opted to set the minimum salaries higher than state statute in order to ensure a living wage, but also to have lots of negotiating room if a person is elected that commissioners consider unqualified or only partly qualified for the office.

Brekken, who has announced his retirement effective the end of this year, said there is a risk that setting the minimum salaries so low could discourage challengers from running for office. It could give an unfair advantage to the incumbents, he said.

Berg said incumbents, in theory, will also have to negotiate their salaries up from the minimum if they are re-elected. But in practice, he added, commissioners are not going to cut the pay of department heads that are doing their jobs well.

Berg said it would not be fair to give a newcomer right out of college, for example, the same pay as what a seasoned predecessor made after years on the job.

Brekken said he would have preferred to see the board set the minimum salary 25 percent under what the elected department heads are now earning, with built-in step increases so that in four years a newcomer would be making what his or her predecessor makes now.

That's how it was done when he was first elected auditor, and it worked well, he said.

By way of comparison, here are what other some other Becker County department head positions pay: the highway engineer and human services director both earn $75,920; the environmental officer earns $75,170; the assessor makes $74,420; the housing and economic development director earns $50,421; the natural resources management director, personnel director and zoning administrator each earn $54,540; and the veterans service officer earns $51,708.

Commissioners earn $19,979, plus per diem.