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Minnesota Supreme Court to review Freeborn County sheriff salary case

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Dec. 1 is slated to hear oral arguments about the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision regarding the salary of Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag.

Freitag petitioned the court in June to review the decision after the Court of Appeals the month prior stated it was satisfied the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners acted in accordance with state statute when it awarded Freitag a salary of $97,020, a 5% increase from his $92,403 pay in 2018.

Kurt Freitag

The ruling was the opposite of a Waseca County District Court judge’s order in August 2019 in Freitag’s favor that stated the board did not sufficiently take into account the extent of the sheriff’s responsibilities, experience, qualifications and performance when it set his salary.

Freitag’s petition to review the case stated the Supreme Court has granted trial judges broad discretion regarding salary determinations for officers of the court and that the Court of Appeals decision dramatically limits that discretion.

“A decision by this court will help clarify or harmonize the law, and resolution of the question presented has possible statewide impact,” the petition stated, noting there are sheriffs and clerks of court in virtually every county of the state.

The Supreme Court granted the review in August.

Freeborn County commissioners briefly referenced the upcoming hearing during a virtual commissioners workshop Tuesday when Freitag and County Attorney David Walker presented their salary requests for 2021 in front of the board.

Freitag’s salary has been $97,020 for both 2019 and 2020, and he is completing his sixth year in office.

On Tuesday Freitag requested a salary of $122,370, stating that amount was the average 2020 salary of both a group of District 6 sheriffs and sheriffs in a group of 11 other comparable counties, plus a 3% cost of living adjustment.

He highlighted some of his accomplishments over the last year, including volunteering for and overseeing the COVID-19 screening at the entry of the Freeborn County Government Center and implementing an effective COVID-19 plan in the jail. He said through Nov. 3 there had been two COVID-19 cases in the jail since the start of the pandemic. A third person who tested positive was brought into the jail Nov. 6 after being arrested on a California warrant. Freitag said the man was asymptomatic. The state of California has since dropped the warrant, and the man was released from the jail Monday.

The jail’s COVID-19 plan calls for isolating inmates upon arrival, along with set testing procedures.

He said the jail’s positive COVID-19 numbers have been significantly lower than other nearby jails and prison, noting the Waseca prison had 177 positive cases during the third week in September.

In addition to COVID-19 measures, Freitag said he has switched the Sheriff’s Office cell phone service to FirstNet, which will increase communication abilities during major events after cell phone service collapses. This will also bring minor cost savings and will go in effect in December.

He also referenced increased interoperability between law enforcement in the Freeborn County and in Worth County and securing a temporary Immigration and Customs Enforcement per diem increase from $95.86 per inmate to $110. This will be in place as long as the governor’s emergency order is in place, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office also provides fingerprint services and has increased revenue for the telephone contract for inmates.

Among other focuses, he said the department continues to review ongoing investigations to provide criminal cases with the highest chances of prosecution, and focuses on both mandated and nonmandated trainings.

He also referenced the department’s specialized capabilities of aquatic invasive species enforcement, boat patrol, and use of the department’s drone, K-9 and ATV.

While a few of the commissioners said they appreciated Freitag and his department’s work in the last year, they said they thought the board needed to wait until the salary case played out in the courts before making a decision on his 2021 salary. The board typically sets elected official salaries in December.

Walker, who received a $118,450 salary in 2020, recommended his salary be frozen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said though his office has had more criminal cases this year than last — and that law enforcement and the court staff are working harder than ever — it isn’t a good time to ask for a raise.

“We need to get through this first,” he said.

A memo to the commissioners from Walker that showed a comparison of 11 other counties within 5,000 population of Freeborn County showed the average salary for a similar official in those counties was about $125,000. The lowest was in LeSeuer County, where the position received about $112,000. The highest was about $144,000 in Steele County.