While Winona County Board members once again declined to increase the pay for their positions, the topic generated more debate than in past years. Often a budget hawk, earlier this month Commissioner Steve Jacob made the case for paying board members more before ultimately voting with the rest of the board against an increase.

County Board members currently receive a salary of $24,237 a year, plus health insurance worth several thousand dollars a year. The board meets twice a month, and most board members serve on several committees, attend numerous public events each month, and spend hours reviewing agenda materials and fielding calls and emails from constituents.

In Goodhue County, commissioners earn slightly less — $22,713 — but of five other counties deemed comparable, Winona County pays the lowest, with salaries ranging from $33,891 to $53,726 in Clay, Itasca, Ottertail, Sherburne, and Rice counties, according to Winona County staff.

On Dec. 14, the Winona County Board considered three options: no raise; the same 2.5 percent increase county employees will receive, bringing board salaries up to $24,843; or an increase equal to the average of the above-mentioned counties, $35,421. 

Jacob has frequently opposed tax increases, including a vote in September against next year’s proposed three percent tax levy increase, citing his disagreement with the jail project. However, in recent years, Jacob has consistently supported gradual wage increases for county employees and elected department heads, saying fair pay is important to securing quality staff and arguing for bringing county wages up to the average of similar counties. 

“I have always supported paying — just being fair — average to all employees,” Jacob said at the County Board’s Dec. 14 meeting. He continued, referring to pay for County Board members, “So for me to say anything other than what is average, I think would just be hypocritical of where I’ve been with everything else I’ve stood for for the 10 years I’ve been in office. So I support the position paying average.”

“I don’t feel like I’m giving myself a raise; this is about setting this salary for this position,” Jacob continued. Working people should be able to run for office, and what the position pays affects who can feasibly serve, he said. “I want people other than just people who don’t need money to run for the position,” he added.

“I kind of fit that mode that Commissioner Jacob said: an old gray-haired lady that doesn’t need the money,” County Board member Marcia Ward joked. However, public office should not be about the money, she said, adding, “I always saw this as a public service job.”

Recalling a recent County Board decision against increasing funding for some area nonprofits and government agencies, County Board member Chris Meyer said, “When we have services that are being provided for homeless people and low-income people who would otherwise be homeless — I’m thinking of SEMMCHRA [Southeast Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority] — and we’re not giving them any cost of living increase to try and do that good work, I can’t take a cost of living increase. I don’t feel until we’re able to fund those services adequately, and pay them some kind of change for inflation that they have to experience, that we should be giving the commissioners more.”

The County Board did increase funding for SEMMCHRA from $100,000 to $120,000 next year, with Ward and Jacob dissenting. However, the County Board turned down other requests for additional funding from organizations such as the Winona, La Crescent, and St. Charles libraries, and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“I totally agree that, until we provide cost of living and reasonable increases when there’s increases in the responsibilities, that we’re not doing our jobs,” County Board member Marie Kovecsi echoed.

The County Board voted unanimously to leave board members salaries unchanged for 2022.