First day of trial underway in sheriff’s salary appeal

Published 8:59 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2019

‘I couldn’t believe it,’ one commissioner testifies of proposed salary


Two Freeborn County commissioners testified Tuesday that had they increased the Freeborn County sheriff’s salary 22 percent as requested, it would have created problems among other elected officials and their constituents.

Kurt Freitag

The testimony came during a trial in front of Waseca County District Court Judge Carol Hanks as part of the appeal by Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag against the county for his salary.

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The board in December voted to approve Freitag’s salary at $97,020, a 4.99 increase from his $92,403 pay in 2018. Freitag had requested an almost $114,000 salary and had previously stated the board did not sufficiently take into account his responsibilities and duties, or his experience, qualifications and performance.

District 3 Commissioner Jim Nelson, who motioned for the $97,020 salary during the Dec. 11 commissioner meeting, said the figure approved was initially suggested by 1st District Commissioner Glen Mathiason during a conversation before the meeting. Nelson said he had initially considered a lower figure. He said he discussed the salary separately with Mathiason and 5th District Commissioner Mike Lee prior to the vote.

Nelson said he received 15 calls about the sheriff’s 22 percent salary increase request after an article ran about it in the Tribune and not one of those people was in favor of the increase.

He said he, too, was shocked when he heard the sheriff’s proposed increase during a workshop in November.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Nelson said.

The commissioner said the county had never given someone that much of an increase and that the sheriff knew what his salary was when he ran for office. At that time it was $75,000, though it has increased over the years. He did not think the sheriff was underpaid when compared to other counties.

Joan Quade, the lawyer representing Freeborn County, asked Nelson if he had considered what the county was going to pay other elected officials prior to making his vote. Nelson said he did and that if they had approved the full increase, there probably would have been an uprising.

Fourth District Commissioner Chris Shoff, who serves as chairman of the county board, said he thought the number approved was fair.

Shoff said since the sheriff’s proposed salary increase was published in the newspaper, “a firestone broke out in public opinion.” People called him and stopped him and told him they did not think the board should give him the raise. 

The commissioners said they did not ask additional questions about sheriff’s salaries in comparable counties before they made their decision, though the information was considered, Shoff noted.


‘People see a change in the Sheriff’s Office’

While on the stand, Freitag highlighted his duties and responsibilities and how he came to his salary request of about $114,000 for the commissioners.

He said he started with the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office in July 1995 and worked as a patrol deputy for about 20 years until he took office as sheriff in January 2015 for a $75,000 salary and began his second term this year.

He noted he has completed several leadership courses while in the Army and more recently through the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association and has completed continuing education requirements on the use of force, first aid, CPR and several other topics.

He directly or indirectly oversees more than 90 employees, including patrol staff, records department, court security, transport deputies and jail staff. He said he manages a fleet of 23 vehicles, regularly evaluates equipment, assesses the department’s budget with the finance director and county administrator, oversees the Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract and hires employees and disciplines employees.

Freitag highlighted many of the things that have changed in the Sheriff’s Office since he was elected.

Freitag said he recently implemented a change in the guns used by deputies, switching from .45 caliber to 9 mm pistols. There are improved training opportunities for staff, and there are now drone and K-9 programs.

He said the Sheriff’s Office has vastly increased water and snow mobile patrols and has increased the department’s capability to respond to large scale crashes, such as one in February when about 100 people had to be evacuated from the interstate.

He said he was able to achieve an increased per diem rate of $95 per detainee through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement program, which is up from the about $77 per detainee previously. He stated the ICE program creates an ability for the county to offset costs in the jail.

In addition to these efforts, he said he has improved the public relations efforts for the Sheriff’s Office. He conducts many speaking engagements, speaks with media members regularly, manages the department’s Facebook page and takes part in a presentation presenting the American flag each night at the Freeborn County Fair.

He said he receives numerous positive comments from members of the public in the mornings at Kwik Trip, where he stops before arriving to work each day.

“People see a change in the Sheriff’s Office,” he said, noting he has tried to be proactive, approachable and transparent.

Though he asked the commissioners for his salary to be about $114,000, he said he actually thinks his salary should be around $120,000 when looking at other comparable communities and some of the work he has implemented.

To reach this amount, he said he looked at the sheriff’s salaries in two comparable groups of counties. One group included District 6 counties, such as Fillmore, Wabasha, Dodge, Houston, Waseca, Mower, Winona, LeSueur, Steele and Goodhue counties.

The second group looked at counties throughout the state comparable to Freeborn County in factors such as population and number of deputies.

Out of these two groups, he took the average salary of both groups and added the 4 percent cost-of-living adjustments expected for the rest of the county for 2019.

Freitag said he presented this information to the Board of Commissioners during a workshop in November without any discussion from the board members.

He said though some of the departments are similar, some have differences. For example, he said Steele County does not have a dispatch center. Its dispatch services are under a consortium with Rice County.

Dodge County doesn’t have a jail, and Mower County doesn’t have water patrol, snow mobile patrol, a K-9, a drone or a command trailer.

The sheriff said he did not think some of the commissioners know what his duties are and said they have not come to him with issues or questions.

When asked about his other employees’ salaries, Freitag said some of his own employees make more money than him after overtime, though they don’t have the responsibilities he does, including supervising employees, the jail and dispatchers. He noted one employee had almost 300 hours of overtime and another had almost 200.

Aside from an average 43 hours a week he is looted in, he said he puts in numerous hours when needed off duty.

Quade said Freitag got the largest raise compared to other county employees.

She asked if he thought he should be paid in excess of positions such as the county attorney or the auditor-treasurer, who runs millions of dollars through her department.

Freitag said he did not think he should be compared to other county staff but instead compared to other sheriffs.

Quade referenced a column Freitag wrote that printed in the Albert Lea Tribune on May 21, 2014, titled “Freeborn County sheriff’s race has many issues.” In it, Freitag stated, “I’m in this for service to our county, and if elected, I won’t sue our county to raise my salary.”

Freitag said based off all he has done in the past 4 1/2 years and the comparable counties, he thinks he should be paid more.


Jail administrator, chief deputy testify

Mike Stasko, jail administrator who was promoted by Freitag about 4 1/2 years, said since Freitag took office, the sheriff has helped get increased revenue for the jail’s telephone contract used by inmates, found a new health care program, worked on the food vendor and upgraded the system for doors and cameras in the jail.

Stasko said the jail is a much safer place to work now.

Freitag also increased training for the detention center deputies and regulated jail schedules so they were not rotating between nights and days every three months.

Stasko said he also sees Freitag come down to the jail at least once a month, sometimes more, and visits with each staff member and is available for inmates if they have questions of him. Stasko said he doesn’t remember Freitag’s predecessor doing that.

“If I’m going to work for someone, I’d like them to know who I am,” Stasko said.

Chief Deputy Todd Earl, who was appointed to his position after the sheriff was elected, said he thinks Freitag has made improvements “probably too many to count.”

Earl said the top improvement was making training a priority, followed by implementing increased court security measures. Freitag has also implemented the K-9 and drone programs and helped create mobile reporting for deputies.

He said Freitag is constantly involved with the employees, which is something he had not seen before.

Earl noted Freitag can make difficult but fair decisions.

The hearing continues Wednesday. Look to the Tribune for updates.