The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 20, 2012

Blue Earth County attorney wants updated pay structure for assistants

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson appealed a labor contract Tuesday between the county and his six assistant attorneys, saying it doesn’t pay them enough.

The County Board also hired an outside law firm to defend them in the case, though Arneson will remain the county’s legal advocate for all other issues.

 He said he can challenge the county legally on this case but remain its advocate at other times. “I’ll have to categorize.”

The labor contract Arneson appealed is the county’s first with its assistant attorneys, who formed a union to negotiate with the county in 2011. Those negotiations failed, and the case went to a state arbitrator, who ruled in September that the county’s contract offer should stand.

The contract included slight wage increases, identical to those awarded to other unions, though the assistant attorneys had sought 30 percent increases for their experienced members.

Arneson said the larger increases are justified because the attorneys’ peers in other counties and the public defenders office make much more money.

“I think the County Board and the county administrator do a great job,” he said. “They’re paid comparable to their contemporaries in the state, or more, and I think my assistants should be, too.”

Public defenders and assistant county attorneys start out at similar salaries, though public defender pay keeps increasing after assistant attorneys stop getting regular raises.

Public defenders start out at $52,450, and can earn $98,077 after 19 years, said Scott Cutcher, chief public defender for the Mankato region. The public defenders, though, have gone through three full years without wage increases, though, he said.

The county’s assistant attorneys max out at about $74,000 a year.

The county has argued that its assistant attorneys already make about 15 percent more than similar positions in area counties. Union members say they don’t make as much as their metro-area or northern Minnesota counterparts.

During the County Board meeting Tuesday, Arneson spoke briefly in defense of his appeal.

He read recent newspaper headlines about a drive-by shooting, the Todd Hoffner child pornography case, a knife attack and a synthetic marijuana case.

“Not only are the cases more serious and difficult, but everything they do is under a spotlight,” he said.

Arneson also said the assistant attorneys are on a pay track of inadequate raises that make it impossible to reach parity in their field.

 “These things get to be like a train. Once they get going, you can’t stop them or divert them,” he said.

A court hearing date on the appeal has not been set.