See more of the story

Kurt Freitag asked his employer for a raise. More than a year later, that request has turned into a bitter battle over how much a rural Minnesota county can afford to pay its sheriff.

Freitag, who was first elected sheriff of Freeborn County in 2014, contends that he's underpaid compared with sheriffs in similar counties.

In late 2018, he asked county commissioners to raise his 2019 salary to about $114,000. It was a big ask, representing a 23% increase over his existing salary of $92,400.

Freitag argued that his request was fair, offering an analysis of sheriffs' salaries in similar counties across southern Minnesota and the state. He asked for a salary somewhere between the highest and lowest paid sheriffs in the region.

"I think that my request was reasonable," Freitag said Tuesday. "It was based off of the average."

The board balked at his request and set his salary at about $97,000 — a 6% raise.

Freitag appealed in Freeborn County District Court, as elected officials have a right to do. That action spawned a barrage of legal briefs and depositions and a two-day trial, running up legal fees that almost certainly have totaled far more than the $17,000 gap at issue.

In August, District Judge Carol Hanks ruled in favor of Freitag and ordered the board to set his salary at $113,952. The county appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which will hear oral arguments in the case in March.

In the meantime, Freitag's salary has been frozen at $97,000.

"I don't know their reason," Freitag said, wondering why the board "is gonna dig [their] heels in if the sheriff is asking for an average salary."

Two county commissioners, Mike Lee and Chris Shoff, declined to comment this week while the case is active. County Administrator Thomas Jensen didn't respond to requests for comment.

But in court testimony, county officials spelled out their reasons for refusing Freitag's request. In short, they said, the county can't afford it, while also noting that community members gave them an earful after news of Freitag's request appeared in a local newspaper.

"It was, for lack of a better term, a firestorm broke out in public opinion," Shoff, who works as a chiropractor, testified at the trial. "I received phone calls, I had people stop me wherever I was at, had patients talk about it.

"There's a call-in radio show … that was pretty much the discussion for a week and a half or two weeks."

Officials also testified that the county of roughly 30,000 residents near the Iowa border is losing population and losing businesses while farmers, who make up a big portion of the tax base, are struggling.

"The economy right now is really in the tank," Commissioner Daniel Belshan testified, citing a list of local businesses that have closed in recent years. "And the farm economy … in the last five years has been really, really hurting. So the taxpayers that pay the bill on this are really in dire straits."

Testimony showed that other elected county officials — the county attorney and auditor/treasurer — received 2019 raises comparable to what Freitag was granted. And the county pointed out that Freitag had received significant raises in earlier years after starting his tenure with an annual salary of $75,000.

But the judge ruled that Freitag's job includes additional duties that some other, higher-paid sheriffs don't perform. For example, some counties don't have a jail, a dispatch center, a water and snowmobile patrol or a K-9 unit, all of which Freeborn County has.

"The evidence before this Court indicates the County Board did not sufficiently take into account the extent of the responsibilities and duties of [Freitag's] office, as well as [Freitag's] experience, qualifications and performance as the sheriff of Freeborn County," the judge wrote in her decision.

While Freitag had done research to support his request, the judge wrote, the county could show no rationale for how it arrived at the figure it set, calling the decision "arbitrary."

The judge also noted that Freeborn County had recently given significant raises to rank-and-file county employees, at a cost of more than $500,000, after a wage study found that 75 to 80% of county employees were being paid below market rate.

"Things have finally kind of settled down between me and the County Board," Freitag said, adding that he hopes there's no lasting ill will.

"I don't want to throw anybody under the bus."