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Crow Wing commissioners' expenses vary widely in 2017

The Crow Wing Board of Commissioners meets the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. Commissioner Doug Houge sits in the center as chairman in this 2017 photo, with new Board Chairman Paul Thiede to Houge's left. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 4
Total payments by taxpayers to the five-member Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners include salary, per diem, phone stipend, mileage and "other." Click image to see entire graphic. Kathy Toensing / Crow Wing County Financial Services2 / 4
Crow Wing County Commissioner and former Board Chairman Doug Houge3 / 4
Crow Wing County Commissioner and Board Chairman Paul Thiede4 / 4

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede once again topped the list of board members in total earnings for salary, per diem, phone stipend, mileage and other claims for last year.

Commissioner Doug Houge also claimed the least again in total earnings for 2017, with only a phone stipend, which was $60 less than what was paid to the others, in addition to his salary.

"This is a yearly story that, in my estimation, is really not much of a story when you put it in the context of what we get paid for what we do," said Thiede, who succeeded Houge as chairman of the fiscally conservative board of commissioners at the start of this year.

Commissioners Rosemary Franzen, Rachel Reabe Nystrom, Paul Koering, Thiede and Houge each received a salary of $29,041 for 2017, an increase of about $15 from the year before.

In addition to that payment, Thiede received $4,050 in per diem payments for last year, to cover expenses such as attending meetings, and $3,348.57 for travel—and $900.99 listed as "other."

"I don't see it as the taxpayers looking at whether you get per diem or not for those trips as being a big issue in the larger scheme of what we earn as the managers of a $75 million budget," Thiede said of what he received from the county coffers. "It sounds reasonable to me."

Thiede's total earnings for 2017 were $38,000.56. That total payment for last year for Thiede was $1,269.44 less than the total payments footed in part by county residents for him for 2016. He also received more in per diem, mileage and other payments for 2016 than last year.

Houge could not be reached for comment at his workplace nor did he return voicemails left on his cellphone. Following the release of 2014 commissioner compensation data, Houge said he believed the salary appropriately covers the expected duties of commissioners. He also said he did not attend as many meetings as other commissioners, although he does appear at those directly affecting his district, which covers the Cuyuna Range area.

Franzen, Nystrom and Koering came in the middle for total earnings they received for 2017—with Franzen at $35,241.35, Nystrom at $31,590.88 and Koering at $33,537.07.

"I personally feel as though if you do the work there ought to be recompense for it," Thiede said.

"I probably—of those of us who take per diem—I probably travel somewhere in the vicinity of seven times farther than anybody else that gets there. ... I don't think it should be unreasonable then that my mileage is going to be greater, so that kind of thing plays into it."

Thiede represents the Second District, in the northwest portion of the county, and calls Pequot Lakes home. Houge represents the Fifth District in the eastern part of the county and lives in the Crosby area. Franzen and Nystrom live in Baxter, while Koering resides in Brainerd.

"If I'm traveling that much farther than anyone else, and you go to a flat salary, either I'm going to be penalized ... or the increase to cover my expenses would be an extra reward for somebody who lived 2 miles away," Thiede said.

"I don't see that as an equitable kind of situation in the interest of the taxpayers. ... Tally up the amount of meetings that each of us has gone to, and let's see who is attending the most meetings to do the job that they feel they need to do."

Thiede also pointed to his attendance at regional association meetings occurring at a greater distance away.

"One more thing: I do avail myself of things like the Association of Minnesota Counties and other groups that I think again is a personal decision on whether or not you think it's worthwhile to join in association kinds of meetings," Thiede said. "...I think my going to that (AMC) legislative conference allows me to be more educated as to what the issues are that are coming before the Legislature that are going to have a direct impact on Crow Wing County, and it's an opportunity to meet with some of those legislators."

By comparison, the total paid to neighboring Todd County commissioners in 2017 for expense reimbursements for mileage, lodging and meals, for example, was on average about $2,465 each, according to figures provided by Todd County Coordinator Joe Hatch.

Aitkin County does not pay any of its five commissioners per diem, according to County Administrator Jessica Seibert, but it did make payments for phone and transportation, parking and/or mileage in 2017 averaging about $348 each for phone and about $2,751 each for travel.

Likewise, per diems are no longer paid to Morrison County commissioners, according to Morrison County Finance Director Steve Messerschmidt, but per diems received from other agencies are receipted back in as "miscellaneous revenue."

Three of the Morrison County commissioners receive a $60 phone stipend for 2017, while the other members of that board did not request a phone stipend. Total payments made to the commissioners, when averaged, was $2,455 each for last year.

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