by CHRIS ROGERS
Voters hire them, but the Winona County Board decides how much they get paid. In a 4-1 vote last week, the Winona County Board gave raises to the county’s four elected department heads — Sheriff Ron Ganrude, County Attorney Karin Sonneman, County Recorder Bob Bambenek, and Auditor-Treasurer Sandra Suchla — and tentatively agreed to a plan to continue increasing their pay until it reaches the average salary for their counterparts in similar counties by 2020. One reason County Board members supported the decision: it avoids the risk of the four elected officials suing the county over their compensation.
After last week’s vote, Ganrude will get a roughly $10,000 raise and Sonneman will earn $8,000 more next year, bringing the sheriff’s salary to $121,000 and the attorney’s to $128,000. Bambenek will get an almost $4,000 raise, increasing his yearly wages to $80,000, and Suchla will earn $79,000 in 2018 — a $14,000 raise over her current salary. All together, that adds up to an extra $37,000 in wages in 2018. Like other county employees, the four officials receive health, life, retirement, and other benefits, too.
Bambenek, Ganrude, Sonneman, and Suchla made their case to the County Board in written memos, outlining their experience and performance and highlighting the fact that all four of them earn well below the average salary of their peers in similar counties. In her memo, Sonneman also pointed to a recent court decision, in which the Wabasha County Attorney successfully sued the Wabasha County Board for violating a state law that requires county boards to give elected officials fair compensation.
Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz recommended the raises that were approved, as well as a plan to increase the four officials’ pay to that of their peers by 2020. Fritz also cited the Wabasha County case and the state law, writing, “In my mind that means setting compensation in-line with what other counties pay their elected department directors.”
County Board Greg Olson voted against a larger raise for Ganrude last year, but he supported Fritz’s proposal at last week’s meeting. “In light of what happened in Wabasha — we have to consider that,” he said in an interview after the vote.
“Over the past two years it was one of our goals to bring everybody to average,” County Board Chair Jim Pomeroy said. The county has raised the pay of union employees to be competitive with comparable counties, and while there is a difference between unionized employees and the four non-unionized officials, that should not mean they deserve below-average pay because they’re elected, he stated. “We’re saying to those people, ‘Yeah, we want everyone average but you,’” Pomeroy said.
Who decides what counties are comparable and based on what criteria? When determining what is average, Winona County administrators compare Winona County wages to those in seven other Minnesota counties: Blue Earth, Clay, Goodhue, Itasca, Otter Tail, Rice, and Sherburne. Personnel Director Maureen Holte said that, years ago, the county negotiated with its unions to come up with that list of seven counties. In terms of population, Winona County (population 51,000) is on the low end of the list, but not the bottom. The seven counties’ populations range from 46,000-93,000. However, Winona County’s smaller tax base stands out. The seven other counties have adjusted net tax capacities of $5.4B-$9.2B, according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, while Winona County’s is just $4.4B. The bigger the tax base, the more property owners there are to shoulder the cost of government (or the wealthier the property owners shouldering it are).
County Board member Marcia Ward cast the lone dissenting vote against the raises, and she pointed to similar discrepancies in the seven counties’ budgets and tax levies, saying that the other counties just have more money than Winona County and calling for a reconsideration of what counties are deemed comparable.
“My constituents can’t afford more,” Ward stated. “You’re all very good people, but we are, in my opinion, all in the public service business,” she told Bambenek, Ganrude, Sonneman, and Suchla. Ward pointed out that the four officials were all earning way more than the average American, adding, “You’re not asking me for a pay raise. You’re asking the citizens of Winona County for a pay raise.”
County Board member Steve Jacob has often voted with Ward for lower taxes and smaller budgets. Last year, he was one of the most outspoken voices against giving the four officials raises. A year ago, Jacob told Ganrude if he wanted a bigger raise, “I think you need to make that case with your constituency when you run [for re-election.]” But this year, Jacob’s tune changed.
While Jacob said it is “luxury” for elected officials to seek raises after knowing what the pay is when they run for office, he said that Winona County may have a hard time retaining or attracting qualified elected department heads if it pays below-average wages. “At some point in time, [these four officials] are not going to re-run, and we want to get good candidates to run for those positions, so there needs to be a number that is going to entice people down the road,” he said. Jacob pointed to the Wabasha County case, as well, saying that accepting Fritz’s deal would avoid legal risks. Finally, Jacob said, fighting over $37,000 in a $48-million budget is small potatoes. “Winona County’s budget woes are not going to be solved on the back of a few salaries. The unfunded state mandates, how we structure our government and our buildings and all that — those are bigger ticket items,” he said. Jacob has sometimes criticized Ward for not supporting his past efforts to downsize the county’s buildings. “We need to solve those problems, and that’s where we’re going to solve our budget issues, not by squeezing our existing employees to the point of not wanting to re-run for office or not wanting to stay in Winona County because the wages are too low,” Jacob stated.
Jacob, Olson, Pomeroy, and County Board member Marie Kovecsi voted for the raises.
Originally, Ganrude had asked for more — a raise to bring his salary up to the $135,000 average in 2018 — but after the meeting, he said of the decision, “I think it’s reasonable … I’m satisfied with it.” Both he and Suchla thanked Fritz for making the process for requesting raises more clear and structured. “I think that had been something that had been missing in the past,” Suchla said.
“I appreciate the research administration did,” Bambenek said, adding, “I’m proud that I’m the county recorder and I’m very proud of the people in my office.”
“I’m very satisfied with the decision,” Sonneman wrote in a statement. “I am grateful for the board’s decision because it is a recognition of the quality of the work done by all of the elected department heads on behalf of the citizens of Winona County, for whom we were elected to serve.”