MANKATO — Pay hikes of as much as 35 percent will come to assistant Blue Earth County attorneys, along with nearly $200,000 in back pay, under an agreement that is expected to put an end to a years-long battle between the county board and local prosecutors.
The three most experienced assistants will see salaries jump by $23,000 or more, rising above $100,000 a year. The four younger attorneys will rise to that level over the next decade as they receive annual increases proscribed by the settlement agreement, which was essentially forced on the county board after it was judged to have violated state law by both a district court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
"It's very difficult for elected officials to give a 20 to 30 percent pay increase when you're giving the rest of the employees two and a half (percent)," said Board Chairman Vance Stuehrenberg. "When you're told you have to do it, it's a different thing."
But Stuehrenberg expects the settlement agreement to be approved by the board when a formal vote is taken Tuesday, and he expects Martin County District Court Judge Robert Walker to sign off on it as well.
"We certainly follow the rule of law and respect what the judge said," Stuehrenberg said. "It's a difference of opinion, and he holds all the cards."
Stuehrenberg and fellow commissioners Kip Bruender, Will Purvis, Drew Campbell and Mark Piepho ended up before Judge Walker 22 months ago after being handed subpoenas by county deputies ordering them to appear. The process initiated by former County Attorney Ross Arneson is known as a budget appeal and involves a rarely used state law that allows elected county officers such as sheriffs and county attorneys to seek relief from the judicial branch if they believe a county board is inadequately funding their office or their staff. The law requires that a county board undertake additional procedures to ensure that they're adequately paying the workers in those particular offices, including comparing the salaries to what other similar counties are paying.
Walker ruled that the board had failed to take those extra measures and ordered commissioners to develop a new salary schedule for the attorneys and submit it to him for approval. That process was suspended when the board appealed the case, but the commissioners suffered a second courtroom loss in August.
After the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected the county's position and after waiting for the results of the Nov. 4 election, when Pat McDermott was elected county attorney following Arneson's retirement, Walker called a settlement conference shortly after McDermott took office in January. The settlement agreement grew out of that conference and subsequent negotiations.
"We're never happy to have to pay something and possibly look at raising the levy to do it," Stuehrenberg said. "Like other laws, you do what you're told."
McDermott wouldn't characterize the settlement as a total victory for his assistants, who handle the bulk of major criminal prosecutions and family law matters such as child protection in Blue Earth County.
"I don't know if anybody's going to be doing cartwheels over this," McDermott said.
The ones who might be most tempted to celebrate with some gymnastics, though, are also a bit longer in the tooth because the biggest raises go to the most experienced attorneys. Susan DeVos, Mike Hanson and Chris Rovney are currently topped out at $37.16 per hour. The settlement would bump DeVos and Hanson to $50.48 and Rovney to $48.47.
Based on a full-time workload, a $50.48 hourly wage would provide $27,708 in additional income and an annual salary of $105,000. Rovney's bump would be $23,525, bringing his annual salary to $100,818. (DeVos has worked as a half-time assistant county attorney in recent years, so Hanson will be the only assistant hitting the $105,000 figure this year).
Buboltz and Kelm have also reached the cap of $37.16. But with fewer years of tenure in the office, they would see a raise of just less than $10,000 (a 12.5 percent increase) and an annual salary of $87,000 for 2015. Hardy will see a 9.3 percent increase to $82,000 and Hansch, with just a year in the office, would get 8.8 percent more for an annual salary of $69,000.
McDermott said he believes the salaries, which are set in a 12-step range that's largely in line with the number of years of service, put Blue Earth County in a competitive position with similar-sized counties.
"I think we're in the ballpark," he said. "Whether we're at the top end of the ballpark, I don't know."
Assuming Walker approves the settlement, and both sides predict he will, the financial impact won't be a large shock to a county budget that tops $90 million. But the money is not insubstantial. The salary increases total $111,000 for 2015 and the cumulative back pay owed to the attorneys for 2012, 2013 and 2014 is $196,000, including $63,000 for Hanson and $47,000 for Rovney.
The county has reserve funds totaling nearly $100 million, including more than $5 million in a general fund reserve, so the 2015 impact can be absorbed. In the future, taxpayers will pay for the higher salaries, Stuehrenberg said. And the annual cost of the settlement will only rise in coming years if the younger attorneys stick around and reach the new six-figure salary cap.
"Everything coming out of the government, one way or the other it's the taxpayers' money," he said.
Despite the dispute, which became rancorous at times, Stuehrenberg doesn't suggest that the county isn't getting value for its money.
"We really understand and know that our county attorney's office does a very good job and we're very happy to have them," he said.
As for McDermott, he doesn't see any sign that the long-running dispute has created a rift within county government.
"I think my relationship with the county commissioners and county administration is just fine," he said. "And I think they'd say the same thing."