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Sheriff’s salary trial testimony wraps up

Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen and 2nd District Commissioner Dan Belshan testified Wednesday about the state of the economy in Freeborn County during questioning in the appeals trial for Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag’s salary.

Kurt Freitag

Belshan, who was the only no vote against proposed salary increases for all of the elected officials in December, said he voted against increases because the area economy right now is “really in the tank.”

The board approved an increase in the sheriff’s salary from $92,403 in 2018 to $97,020 in 2019. Freitag had requested an almost $114,000 salary and filed an appeal against the board’s decision after the vote, stating the board did not take into account his responsibilities and duties, or his experience, qualifications and performance.

Freitag in testimony Tuesday talked about how his salary compared to others in District 6 and to other counties similar in size throughout the state. He showed how he created his salary proposal by taking an average of the sheriff’s salaries from the other counties and adding on a 4% cost of living increase. 

Belshan and Jensen said it would not be fair to compare Freeborn County against counties such as Mower and Steele because of various factors.

Belshan said some of Albert Lea’s hospital services are transitioning to Austin, and numerous businesses have closed in recent years. He listed off a series of businesses, including Fountain Industries, Bridon Cordage, Kibble Equipment, Holiday Lanes, Shopko, Herberger’s, Sterling Drug and others.

He said the population is down to 1941 levels, and he thinks the county needs to reduce its services to core services.

Belshan, a farmer, said there are 10-year lows right now on beans, and corn is at a break-even, if not a loss as well. Dairy farmers are hit even worse. He described agriculture as the driving industry of the county.

“People are leaving agriculture unless things turn around,” he said.

The commissioner said he did not think it would be fair to compare the Freeborn County sheriff’s salary to the salary of the sheriff in Mower County because of differences in the county, such as population, its proximity to Rochester and the fact it has a Fortune 500 company. Mower County also has much fewer road expenses than Freeborn County.

Jensen said it is hard to compare Freeborn County to Mower County because of the Hormel Foundation, which provides a “huge benefit” to Mower County and Austin. He said Steele County is half the physical size of Freeborn County, and Freeborn County spends much more on road repair and replacement because it has more roads.

Jensen said Steele County has better tax base, and both it and Mower County have more shovel-ready sites for businesses looking to move there.

He said it’s not fair to compare budgets in those counties with the Freeborn County budget because of the economy, population and demographic differences.

Freitag’s lawyer Steve Hovey asked Jensen why Steele and Mower were considered as comparable counties in a recent wage study conducted for unelected officials.

He said the goal of the study was to reduce attrition and become better in line with wages in the market. The counties were included because people living in Freeborn County could drive to those counties for employment.

Hovey also asked Belshan and Jensen about a financial report created each year through the county’s finance department that since 2015 has stated the county had a stable economic outlook, a strong agricultural base, a healthy tax base and a positive Moody’s rating, among other factors. The letters also credited the Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract for bringing millions in revenue to the county.

 

A fair salary

Belshan said when the news was out about Freitag’s proposed 22% increase in his 2019 salary, constituents told him they couldn’t believe anyone would ask for that high of a raise.

“They thought it was totally out of line and how could anyone ask for this in these economic times,” he said, of what his constituents expressed to him. He said he did not receive any calls in support.

He said he initially thought he had heard Freitag wrong, as he has never experienced such a high request in his 20 years as commissioner.

“That’s not going to happen with a vote from me,” he said.

Though he did not vote in favor of the $97,020 salary, he said he thought the sheriff was given a fair salary.

Jensen said he, too, thought the commissioners approved a fair raise for Freitag and acted in the best interest of the county.

The raise acknowledged the improved service and good work the sheriff has done with the budget, and was more in line with the raises of the other elected officials, Jensen said. He said he thinks all of the elected officials are doing a good job and does not think the sheriff is underpaid.

When asked what would happen with the other elected officials if Freitag was given his full 22% request, Jensen said he thought the county would be spending more money on litigation.

 

‘We’ve had our challenges’

Joan Quade, the lawyer representing Freeborn County, asked Jensen about a few less favorable scenarios about Freitag.

Jensen said there was one incident when the Sheriff’s Office did not inform Board Chairman Chris Shoff that a shelter would be opening because of bad weather. Shoff is identified as the public information officer and is the person that disseminates information to media outlets and the public, but instead of finding out from the Sheriff’s Office, he had reportedly found out through the news.

Jensen spoke of former Crime Victims Crisis Center employee Dotti Honsey, who retired and came before the board in 2017 stating there had been incidents between her and the sheriff where she felt intimidation and bullying.

Jensen said there had been an article in the newspaper about Honsey’s perspective, and the sheriff went against county recommendations in deciding to speak out about his side of the situation.

Jensen also mentioned a time where Freitag reportedly promoted a person against the advice of the county, and then that promotion had to be taken back.

Jensen said he thinks the sheriff has “done an outstanding job” but noted “we’ve had our challenges.”

He asked the court to uphold the salary the board approved.

 

Another sheriff’s story

Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele said he was first elected in 2010 and went from making $83,000 his first year to now making $133,000 as set by his county board, with the potential for a slight increase this year.

His highest paid deputy makes about $70,000 including overtime, a sergeant is up to almost $90,000 and his chief deputy makes about $100,000.

He said he supports a gap between the sheriff and the employees so there is separations in ranks and as an incentive for qualified people to do the job.

Thiele said Steele County conducted a comparative wage study about four or five years ago, which he felt was beneficial for his position. He is on a step plan, along with the deputies and sergeants.

Thiele noted that Steele County is growing, has several large counties and is closer to the Twin Cities than Freeborn County. He also pointed out that Freeborn and Steele counties are both on Interstate 35, which he described as a pipeline for criminal activity. He said Freeborn County has Interstate 90, too.

Patrol deputies Sgt. Mitch Hagen highlighted some of the improvements that have taken place in the Sheriff’s Office since Freitag was elected. He said there are advanced training programs, including in firearms, the new K-9 and drone programs and updated squad equipment.

The trial is in front of Waseca County District Court Judge Carol Hanks.

Lawyers on both sides are expected to submit written closing arguments June 6 to Hanks, after which the case will be under review by the judge.

“We are very glad to have this issue behind us,” Jensen said after the trial concluded. “We can now return our focus to providing service to Freeborn County residents.”

Jensen said Freeborn County had spent $27,000 in attorney fees to date, along with hundreds of hours of staff time.

Freitag said he thought the trial went well.

 

 

11 county sheriff’s salary comparison (2018 numbers)

Becker: $98,078; second year as sheriff; population 33,231

Carlton: $99,524; 13th year as sheriff; population 34,128

Cass: $115,203; eighth year as sheriff; population 28,654

Le Sueur: $115,000; 1.5 years as sheriff; population 27,810

McLeod: $95,000; 12 years as sheriff; population 37,289

Mille Lacs: $115,000; 12 years as sheriff; population 26,397

Morrison: $112,000; four years as sheriff; population 32,831

Nicollett: $119,661; 16 years as sheriff; population 32,024

Pine: $99,540; four years as sheriff; population 28,328

Polk: $108,784; four years as sheriff; population 30,854

Steele: $126,000; seven years as sheriff; population 36,465

 

Average salary: $109,162

Add 4% COLA: $4,366.48

Total: $113,528.86

 

— Information taken from spreadsheet by Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag that was given to Freeborn County commissioners in a November workshop.

 

6th District sheriff’s salaries with the exemption of Rice and Olmsted counties (2018 numbers)

Freeborn: $92,403; four years as sheriff; population 30,948

Fillmore: $95,700; four years as sheriff; population 20,835

Wabasha: $99,818; 16 years as sheriff; population 21,443

Dodge: $102,500; four years as sheriff; population 20,349*

Houston: $98,069; four years as sheriff; population 18,799

Waseca: $99,999; eight years as sheriff; population 19,098

Mower: $107,512; 16 years as sheriff; population 39,327*

Le Sueur: $115,000; 1.5 years as sheriff; population 27,810

Winona: $120,000; four years as sheriff; population 51,232

Steele: $126,000; eight years as sheriff; population 36,465

Goodhue: $140,556 (figure from 2017); eight years as sheriff; population 46,464

 

Average of all counties except Freeborn: $110,515

Add 4% COLA: $4,399

Total: $114,377

 

— Information taken from spreadsheet by Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag that was given to Freeborn County commissioners in a November workshop. Totals with asterisks were updated Jan. 3.