Hennepin County continues commissioner pay donation, unpaid leave

Hennepin County is continuing a program to save money in its budget by asking employees to take leave without pay and the Board of Commissioners also recently contributed a portion of its salaries to help.

The county’s full-time employees are asked to take an average of 20 hours per year of unpaid leave. In 2009, the county saved $4.1 million through the program. The total in 2010 was approximately $2.5 million and nearly $1.9 million in 2011.

City Administrator Richard Johnson said 2,453 employees participated in 2010 and 1,762 participated in 2011.

“We’ve been under fiscal pressure for the past few years,” Johnson said. “We’ve been able to avoid layoffs in part because of this action.”

The county board members also wanted contribute to the savings, but by law, elected officials cannot take special leave without pay.

Board chair and District 1 Commissioner Mike Opat said instead they voted to donate back a share of their salaries equivalent of 20 hours to the county.

“Because Minnesota statute prevents elected officials from reducing our salaries or taking unpaid leave, we arrived at this strategy – basically in the form of a gift to the county, which is permitted by statute – so that we could give back a portion of our salaries as well as to address the deficit,” Opat said.

“It’s unique,” he said. “I don’t know of any other place doing it. It’s helped us to reduce our workforce more gradually through attrition and not layoffs, and we’ve done that,” Opat said.

Employees and board commissioners in Hennepin County have also had a wage freeze since 2009, which Johnson said might contribute to the decline in overall savings in the program since that year.

“Our employees have gone without salary increases for the last few years and then to go that time without pay is a lot,” Johnson said.

“The employees have really stepped up and been an active part in this,” he said. “It’s been very important to the county and we appreciate all that they’ve done.”

The contribution per board member equals about $400 annually, Johnson said.