Parity discussion begins again

Milaca – The Mille Lacs County commissioners again discussed a parity plan for elected officials at the board’s Dec. 29 meeting, a topic that has arisen repeatedly in workshops.
The county attorney, sheriff and auditor/treasurer have requested that the county consider a program for them that is comparable to the policy that allows departing employees to be paid for their unused sick time and vacation time.
Elected officials do not accumulate any paid sick or vacation time but used to have a parity plan as a comparable benefit to the “severance” pay most employees receive via their unused time. The former parity plan was discontinued indefinitely after the recession. While there have been discussions about reinstating some kind of plan, one has not been devised.
The officials have asked for $1,000 per year and would like for the parity pay to be retroactive to the beginning of their employment.
While most commissioners agree that a parity plan makes sense and have acknowledged the importance of it to the elected officials, the talks always seems to stall when it comes to how far back the plan should go.
Commissioner Tim Wilhelm said the parity plan has been an issue for at least 10 years and that the county has “kicked that can down the road for a long time.” He made a motion to at least begin to save the $3,000 per year in 2017 and when an elected official leaves the county, the money would be deposited into a health insurance account.
Wilhelm acknowledged that his motion did not address the request for retroactive parity, but it would at least be a start and a way to budget for it and have it on hand when someone leaves. After discussion about the motion, it died due to lack of a second.
County Administrator Pat Oman said the many talks about a parity plan over the years had resulted in the development of a model that pays the three elected officials’ parity amounts from the beginning of their employment. Voters elected Auditor/Treasurer Phil Thompson in 1994, Sheriff Brent Lindgren in 2002 and County Attorney Joe Walsh in 2014.
Oman said the county staff’s recommendation has always been to “reach all the way” with the parity plan so that it addresses the past, present and future in an agreeable way. He said the model already developed would be comparable to what other counties do for their elected officials.
Oman said, “The reach-back discussion is the one that becomes problematic.”
He said the parity plan is “incredibly important” to  Walsh, Lindgren and Thompson, but it would also apply to the commissioners, since they are also elected officials.
Oman said, since the 2017 budget has been finalized, money for this year’s part of the parity plan would come from somewhere other than the general fund, anyway. He said he’d like to fully discuss and formulate all the plan parts at once rather than starting one part now and then revisiting it later.
Board Chairman Roger Tellinghuisen asked Oman if the proposed model could be brought to the first board meeting in February; Oman said yes.