By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
NORTH MANKATO — The North Mankato City Council has approved a two-year contract with Eudora, Kan., City Administrator John Harrenstein that Harrenstein is expected to sign, the final step in the city’s seven-month effort to find a replacement for retired administrator Wendell Sande.
The contract will pay Harrenstein, who has just over three years of experience as a city administrator, more than $116,000 a year when car and cell phone allowances are included — $3,601 more annually than Sande received prior to his May retirement.
Councilman Kim Spears questioned the salary at Monday’s special meeting to approve the contract, wondering why such a young administrator should start at a base salary of $112,000 — compared to a base salary of just under $108,000 for Sande, who was city administrator for 16 years and the city’s finance director for 15 years prior to taking the top spot.
“Wendell Sande had many, many years of experience and received high accolades for his work,” Spears said. “... And now we’re hiring a relatively new and young administrator for more than $4,000 in base compensation (than Sande’s).”
Mayor Mark Dehen, who negotiated the contract after the council unanimously decided on Dec. 20 to offer Harrenstein the job, said the contract reflects the marketplace for talented young administrators rather than a comparison between Harrenstein and Sande.
“We’re not hiring him in competition with Wendell,” Dehen said. “We’re hiring him in competition with what’s out there, available for city managers in the marketplace today. There are a number of city managers of Wendell’s age group that are now retiring. So we’re in competition with those other communities. And so that’s the marketplace we’re up against.”
Dehen also noted that the city will be getting two or three more weeks of work from Harrenstein each year because he will have earned less vacation time than Sande had. And the mayor said Harrenstein’s salary is comparable to that being paid to city and county managers in 28 other Minnesota communities with similar populations.
The list, compiled at the city’s request by the League of Minnesota Cities, showed an average salary for that group of $102,172. The 28 communities included metro area suburbs such as Robbinsdale and Vadnais Heights that tended to offer higher salaries, but it also contained low-population rural counties that generally paid their administrators substantially less.
Looking only at the 14 outstate cities with populations between 10,000 and 15,000 shows an average salary of $103,900 for city administrators, ranging from $85,951 in North Branch and $89,856 in St. Peter to $120,388 in Hutchinson and $125,486 in New Ulm. With North Mankato included, Harrenstein’s salary will rank fourth among the 15 outstate cities in that population group.
Along with the base salary, Harrenstein’s contract includes cash allowances for a car ($3,600 a year) and a cell phone ($780 annually) that will bring his annual income to $116,380. Sande had a car allowance of $4,800 but no cell phone allowance in his contract.
Spears, who had questioned the appropriateness of Sande’s car allowance prior to his Nov. 6 election to the council, asked why Harrenstein — whose contract also includes access to city vehicles — is receiving cash payments for vehicle expenses.
Dehen said Harrenstein is receiving benefits comparable to what he now gets in Eudora, where he was hired in September of 2009 at a salary of $78,000.
“He’s receiving the same level of car allowance currently,” Dehen said.
Councilman Bob Freyberg, who was assigned to develop the applicant pool to find Sande’s replacement, said the benefits are common for local government administrators.
“Of 37 applicants, I don’t know of one who didn’t have car allowance, cell phone allowance,” Freyberg said.
Councilwoman Diane Norland said she had similar questions about why Harrenstein’s compensation exceeded Sande’s, but she believes that the disparity reflects too little pay for Sande rather than too much for his replacement.
“Frankly in the years I’ve sat on Council, it seems to me that Wendell was underpaid,” said Norland, who noted that Sande didn’t request a higher salary. “The income was what he proposed to us. So, far be it for a council member to say, ‘Shouldn’t you be $3,000 higher?’ That was my take on it over the years: that he certainly was lower than he could have been.”
The council unanimously approved the contract.
The special afternoon meeting was called so that Harrenstein could receive the approved contract in time to submit his resignation at Monday night’s Eudora City Commission meeting, which he did, the Eudora Reporter reported on its website.
Dehen said Harrenstein’s starting date should be March 4. Sande resigned effective May 31.