This letter arrived from a concerned county citizen. Please Read:
Update: The author of the following letter asked to make a correction. The County Board intends to vote on this on Tuesday, June 14th not the 15th. The cost to the taxpayers of Itasca County for the interim County Administrator will be $135,000 plus benefits.
COUNTY COMMISSONERS NO LONGER DIRECTLY ACCOUNTABLE TO THE ELECTORATE!
In 2011 the Itasca County Board of Commissioners, upon the recommendation of the County Coordinator opted to change the form of county leadership (governance model) to that of County Administrator.
Prior to this and for 30-35 years Itasca County functioned with the assistance of a County Coordinator. Minnesota Statute 375A.01-375A.13 requiring counties to adopt one of the various forms of statutory county government.
The statutory forms of county government are: Elected County Executive; County Manager; Chair of the County Board elected at large by voters; County Administrator; and County Auditor/County Administrator. Minnesota statute 375.48 also allows for the appointment of a county coordinator.
Each option has pros and cons, differing restrictions and rules. Some options require elections, court appointed citizen committees to study and make recommendation and may only be changed after a county-wide referendum is placed on the ballot and is passed.
However, what has changed is that our State Legislators prior to and in 2015-2016, at the urging of County Boards, County Administrators and the Minnesota Association of Counties took away the citizen rights to choose and gave absolute authority to County Boards to make the decisions.
One example of key language change was the addition of, “Notwithstanding other provisions of law to the contrary,”. In other words, all other existing law is erased allowing the county board to make their own decision without citizen participation.
Under the past 30-35 years of Coordinator leadership, where elected county board members were acting in both an administrative and legislative capacity the county was able to build a reserve of $22-$23 million dollars, while budgeting and taking care of county business. The building of reserves continued even while under Governor Plenty’s levy limits and budget cuts. The county board was directly responsible for setting the budget and managing departments with department heads reporting directly to them. County Commissioners had a direct line of supervision over the appointed department heads allowing them to keep track of what was occurring in those departments.
When an Administrator is appointed, the Administrator assumes general supervision over all county institutions and agencies; prepares and submits the proposed budget, hires and fires and assumes other responsibilities formally that of the elected county commissioners. Itasca County hired its first Administrator in June of 2011.
How well did that work for us?
The County Board received a self granted pay increase for doing ½ the job reducing their workload significantly.
One of the early actions taken by the Administrator was to fire our Assessor who had a long Career doing assessments. Cost? The Administrator then hired the same Assessor back as consultant at an expense of $80,000.00 plus until someone new could be trained in and qualified.
The Assessor as a consultant was no longer required to manage department or report for work every day and was able to come and go as desired.
The Auditor/Treasurer voluntarily stepped in to assist management of the department on a short-term basis, without additional pay, or it would have cost taxpayers a lot more.
The County Administrator, self-determined that the Administrator position is subject to salaried employee protections under the Fair Labor Standard Act for purpose of overtime. —- Wrong! Consequence? Nothing of significance! Rather was given the benefit of flex time and a pay increase by current county commissioners. In actuality the Administrator received about 8% per year pay increases from 2012-2016, placing the annual salary at around $139,000.00 plus a lucrative benefit package.
The Administrator sought to make the elected Auditor/Treasurer job an appointed position. The elected Auditor/Treasurer reports regularly to the Board on the financial status of the county including reductions in the county reserves. The Auditor/Treasurer’s office acts as a check and balance to Board spending. Oh yes, our current county board lobbied for and obtained legislation making possible their exclusive appointment of Auditor/Treasurer. This new legislation also includes an option for appointment of the Sheriff and a Civil Processor.
Employees were deemed to have such low morale under the leadership of the Administrator that the county board hired private consultants to hold “Employee Feel Good meetings.” The first hired was a friend of the Administrator, the third hired is an Aunt to one of the sitting county Commissioners. The cost to taxpayers is about $300,000.00 to date.
The Administrator convinced the Board to undertake an employee salary study under the guise of needing to be in compliance with “Pay Equity.” Guess what, the county has always been in compliance with Pay Equity since its legislated start in 1984. The county uses the same process as the state of Minnesota and many other counties for rating jobs, the “Hay system “. What the Administrator promoted is called the “Decision Band method”.
One might ask why you would promote something like this when the county is already in compliance. It might have something to do with the fact that the Administrator job would have been at the top of that scale based upon the number and importance of Administrator decisions, making it appear another salary increase for that position is justified.
Most of the positions rated as needing upward adjustment under this method are those already at the top of the scale and freezes those at the bottom. It cost around $60,000.00 for the study with additional payments required each time adjustments are made.
The cost of implementation is estimated at between $2.9 million to $5 million dollars. The State Department of Employee Relations (DOER), as required by law, presented a 2016 Report to the State legislature. The report says that the State of Minnesota is currently at 99% compliance and that DOER is opposed to the plan changes recommended by Decision Band Method. The 2016 DOER Report also states it is not acceptable to accomplish “Pay Equity” by freezing salaries or laying off male employees. The male line is considered to be the proper trend line as it is considered non-discriminatory historically. Female dominated jobs are expected to be made comparable based upon factors used to rate and value them. This was long ago accomplished in Itasca County using the “Hay System.”
Then there was the recent voluntary resignation of the Veterans Officer because of management conflicts and disagreement regarding what was in the best interest of the Veterans. The Administrator managed to turn this into a wrongful termination within an hour or two of the meeting, at which the Veterans Officer resignation was accepted, to be effective June 1st. In this case, the Veterans and the community turned out in strong support of the VO, in keeping this department as an exception to report directly to the county board and separate from the Social Service Agency. The outcome was appropriate and shows the public can be effective when collective action is taken.
Cost to county taxpayers for termination of Administrator in accordance with the Administrator contract was around $70,000.00.
However, the questions are:
- Why is there an exception for only Veterans Service Officer’s department?
- If it is best that the Veteran’s Service Officer be under the direct authority of the Board and reports directly to the Board, then why is it better to have a County Administrator over every other county department head?
Employees are included, as they are no longer allowed to bring concerns directly to County commissioners, but are required to go through the Administrator first. This has a chilling effect on potential “Whistle Blowers.”
- What are we protecting by not allowing taxpaying public employees direct access to their county commissioners?
- What is it that the Administrator does not want the County Board to know?
- What is it that the County Board does not want the public to know?
LAST BUT BY NO MEANS LEAST FOLKS, THE COUNTY IS IN THE RED AND THE RESERVES ARE GONE!
A County Coordinator was previously employed at less than an Administrator demands and while not a perfect solution, none are, this worked well for 30-50 years. Only took 6 years to destroy all that was reserved over those years and put us into the red ink.
The issues listed are only the “Tip of the Old Ice Berg”. It is just a matter of time before the taxpayers of this county must pay for the existing Board member decisions in Spades. It is going to mean significant increases in your property taxes. It is going to mean a reduction in services and employee layoffs.
It is common knowledge that Itasca County has a “Good ‘Ole Boy” power click problem. It is a lot easier for those currently controlling agenda and outcomes to go to one County Administrator than to convince a majority of five (5) county commissioners that something is a good idea. It is even harder to convince the voters that it is, thus the incentive for taking away voter rights to elective process and referendum action.
As of the Work Session on June 7th Tuesday, it seems the majority of the County Board members are in favor of continuing the failed Administrator model. This issue will be discussed and voted on at the regular Board meeting on Tuesday, June 15th <correction 14th>. If you care, you have a short window of opportunity to make your voice heard. Whether or not the Board members listen is yet to be determined.
Perhaps they feel safe now that filings for office are closed. Maybe they forget that write in candidates are an option as are recall elections.