What is role of Crow Wing County government — managing departments in detail or setting overall policy and direction?
It’s not a new question, but Tuesday the subject was revisited as the county considered a request regarding two part-time deputies. Because more than 50 percent of the duties are in general law enforcement, they qualify for the Public Employees Police and Fire Plan, for employees who perform hazardous work and protect the property and safety of others.
Administrator Tim Houle said the part-time deputies fill the county’s needs and avoid overtime pay when a deputy calls in sick or has vacation.
So the margin in cost for the pension plan is significantly offset by the reduced overtime and pension contribution for a full-time deputy, Houle said.
Sheriff Todd Dahl said the effort is to keep deputies on street patrols and keep overtime costs down.
Commissioner Paul Koering questioned what the numbers detailed and how much money would be saved. Koering noted when he had that kind of question during his term in the Legislature, he’d ask for a fiscal note. Houle said he wants to expand that process for the board.
“There is no data that tells me this is a good way to vote,” Koering said. “I’m just being told this is a good thing — take me at my word.”
The question is whether shifts that need to be filled will be filled at a lower hourly rate with part-time staff or not, Houle said.
Chairwoman Rachel Reabe Nystrom asked if the sheriff’s department could add a paragraph on anticipated savings by doing this to help Koering who is looking at this with fresh eyes. Something to give the board a justification other than to say will be cheaper without generating reams of paper, Nystrom said.
“Ascending to that lofty position as chairman of the board I’m just taken by the micromanagement you are starting to lean towards,” Thiede said to Nystrom, adding he couldn’t resist making that remark to her. “We face this all the time when we look at the details of every program ... This enterprise is complex. Anytime we look at any bit of it we can be accused of micromanaging if we get down too much.”
Thiede said the sheriff’s department is a perfect example.
“Do we as policy makers ever sit here and determine do we have the right number of deputies and if we looked at that what would be our source of information to justify one or the other, generally we would turn to the sheriff because we aren’t experts in law enforcement and that’s constantly the game we have to face here,” Thiede said. “We try to not micromanage, but we have the right to ask these kinds of questions and say how do we make the best decision.”
Thiede said he was delighted Koering was asking these questions.
“If I’m ever accused of micromanaging while I’m on the county board, I’m more than happy to take that,” Koering said. “I took an oath here just two weeks ago and I’ve got about 12,000 people I have to answer to about votes that I’m taking. ... This board is responsible for every single penny in this county — whether it’s the sheriff’s department, whether it’s land services, we are responsible for it.”
Thiede said he applauded that attitude. If there are problems in the county, people ought to look to the county board, Thiede said.
Houle said he agreed with the value of a good fiscal note and he talked with the finance director about the need to do more of that documentation. But Houle said balance needs to be struck and if every decision made by every manager in the county is put through that rigorous process, more staff will be needed.
Houle said the cost benefit in terms of the value added to that kind of scrutiny to every decision may be questionable. The alternative is the county doesn’t need all the supervisors or managers they have to make some decisions. And in a $70 million budget, the board could work 40 hours a week and wouldn’t come closer than 5 percent of the decisions made in the county by the managers and supervisors it has.
“The way you make the maximum impact is you manage through a set of policies,” Houle said, noting the financial policies, personnel policies and others that tell employees how the board wants them to manage. “You impact the organization most greatly from your perch by having those over arching kinds of guidelines that are giving direction to staff. ... That’s where I think you have the greater opportunity for more fiscal information.”
Houle said the example of the two part-time deputies wasn’t one where he would have picked for the board to leverage its position to the maximum impact.
Houle said he agreed for the need for the fiscal notes but it can’t be done all the time and if they choose to do it all the time, they won’t get to the big nuggets. And when the board is working with the budget, strategic plan, policies and procedures to guide staff how to handle circumstances is where the board has its most influence in managing the organization.
Koering said he didn’t quite understand what Houle was trying to get at in his speech. Laureen Borden, auditor-treasurer, pointed out the part-time people filling in was already discussed at length during the budget process and this resolution was just to assure they were getting the compensation plan. Borden said additional financial information the board needed could be provided.
Koering said he wasn’t asking for a fiscal note on this particular item but was talking broadly.
“I need to have in the future some more data so I can make a better decision,” Koering said, adding a year from now when he’s asked how he voted, he’ll be able to say he made the best decision he could with the information he had at the time.