Weather Forecast


Elected Lake County officials seek pay raises

Three of the four elected department heads in Lake County are requesting significant pay increases for 2018.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners discussed the requests with the employees during the Committee of the Whole meeting Jan. 16 in Two Harbors.

Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson, Auditor Linda Libal and Recorder Lori Ekstrom all spoke with the board about ensuring that they have a "fair and equitable wage" during the meeting.

"In the past, I've asked that the auditor position be paid a fair and equitable wage," Libal told the board. "I've had the opportunity to provide you with my education and work experience. We discussed the salary of this position in 2014 and talked about the fact that there are not seniority or longevity steps for elected positions. I've provided comparison analysis from statewide, neighboring counties and counties that use the same tax computer system as Lake County."

Libal provided a worksheet that showed non-elected department heads in the county received an average 3.23 percent raised in 2017 and will receive an average of 3.1 percent in 2018.

The county auditor position received a salary of $80,784 in 2014, the last year of Steve McMahon's tenure in the position.

Libal was elected in fall 2014. After her election, the auditor salary was reduced from $80,784 in 2014 to $68,000 in in 2015. Libal requested that her salary be returned to the 2014 level as well as an increase of 35 cents per hour received by county employees in 2015, as well as a 2 percent increase in 2016-18, which was the average increase for all county employees during those years. Those increases would make Libal's requested 2018 salary $90,853 — a 25.3 percent increase over her 2017 salary of $72,500.

Johnson and Ekstrom didn't provide specific dollar requests to the board, but both said they want to be paid comparably with other similar positions in the state. Both provided salaries for sheriffs and recorders in other counties that are of comparable size or in the northeast Minnesota region.

Johnson said many of the counties with similar populations and tax bases aren't appropriate comparisons with Lake County. Many of those counties are located in western and southern Minnesota and don't have nearly the level of tourism in Lake County. Tourism, while great for local businesses, means more work for local law enforcement, Johnson said.

"With more people comes more problems," Johnson said. "Whether it's car problems, domestics or fights or whatever, when I'm talking about tourism, I'm not talking about the good part of tourism."

Ekstrom's position is currently appointed following the 2016 retirement of Erica Koski. After Koski's retirement, the recorder salary was reduced by nearly 20 percent in 2016 to $56,550. Ekstrom said the average for county recorders in adjoining counties is $68,485. He would like to be "more on par with the wage for the position."

Commissioner Rich Sve said he believes there was an understanding between Ekstrom and County Administrator Matt Huddleston regarding her wage for the two years of her appointment, but Ekstrom disagreed and believes she should receive a larger increase than the 2.43 percent she was offered.

"I negotiated a starting salary, but it wasn't understanding that I would be limited so strictly upon accepting that," Ekstrom said.

Lake County Attorney Russ Conrow was at the meeting, but said he understood when he was appointed in April 2017 he would receive the same salary for 2017 and 2018.

Gender pay gap?

Libal also pointed out in the information she provided that there has been a significant and growing discrepancy in the difference paid to the male elected officials and the female officials.

Currently, Conrow is paid $98,000 per year and Johnson is paid $92,500. Both men receive 140 percent or more of the salary minimums set by the board. The minimum salary for the county attorney is $70,000 and $62,120 for the sheriff.

Conversely, Ekstrom's 2018 salary of $59,241 is 116 percent of the minimum set and Libal's 2017 salary was 119 percent of the minimum. Sve pointed out that in many counties, the minimums set are as low as $5,000. Commissioner Rick Goutermont said there was little thought or research that went into setting the minimums.

"There wasn't any science that went into the numbers; we just picked something where if we were to get somebody with zero experience in there, we weren't paying an arm and a leg for that because you'd have to go outside and hire for help they are supposed to be doing," Goutermont said. "We didn't take an exact percentage off what the current salary was for those positions."

However, in 2014, when three of the four positions were occupied by men, all four positions received 133 percent of the county minimum.

At the end of the discussion, Sve said the board would discuss the three requests during its workshop meeting Tuesday, Jan. 30, in Two Harbors and plan to set the 2018 salaries for the positions at its next action meeting Feb. 13.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 355-8868