Burke becomes Murray County’s first administrator

SLAYTON — Murray County’s search for its first-ever county administrator concluded Tuesday with the hiring of Thomas Burke.

Commissioner and Board Chairman Dave Thiner presented a recommendation from the county personnel committee, which includes two out of the five commissioners. It called for hiring Burke as the new full-time administrator with a July 22 starting date at a salary of $105,851.95.

Burke was one of four finalists chosen to interview on June 27, first in one-to-one meetings with department heads and then with the full board.

He plans to move to Murray County from northern Minnesota, where he served as Cass County Director of Health, Human and Veteran Services for the past two years. Prior to that he served for 19 years in nearby Aitkin County as Director of Health and Human Services. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.

Thiner called for a motion after summarizing the committee’s recommendation. A motion and second to hire Burke were followed by a unanimous approval.

As part of the hiring process, coordinated by consultant Gary Weiers of the Twin Cities David Drown and Associates human resources consulting firm, written comments from department heads based on June 27 interview sessions were reviewed by each commissioner. Board members also provided their own individual feedback for the personnel committee’s consideration.

Tuesday’s choice for administrator concluded a search process that began in December of 2018 with the resignation of former Murray County Coordinator Aurora Heard.

After considering options, the board decided this winter to realign the county management structure by hiring an administrator to directly supervise all department heads (both elected and appointed). A coordinator, by contrast, only serves as a link between individual department heads and the board.

Murray County is now part of the long-term trend toward administrators among Minnesota’s 87 counties. Almost two-thirds of them currently employ an administrator rather than a coordinator or a traditional county auditor (who for administrative purposes functions mainly as a board clerk and cash flow advisor), according to the Minnesota Association of County Administrators web-based directory.

After the approval of Burke’s hiring, Thiner proposed moving back the dates for the initial 2019 county budget sessions. They’d been scheduled for next week.

At those meetings, department heads present budget requests based on projected operating expenses in 2020. Commissioners then use the requests as a starting point for arriving at a preliminary annual budget and tax levy, which must be approved by a September deadline.

Final county levies, set each December, cannot exceed the preliminary levy reflected on annual tax statements. Minnesota requires Truth in Taxation hearings for counties, cities and school districts to allow the opportunity for open public comment about proposed budget and levy changes.

“It’s a good starting point if our new administrator can participate in the entire budget process,” Thiner said. “We’ll have an administrator on board sooner than expected and we have enough time move it back, so it makes sense to include him.”

The board then approved new meeting dates for July 29-30. When contacted about the hiring decision and the revised budget meeting dates, Burke accepted the offer from the full board. He said he plans to look into housing options within the local area.

“I’m happy to be chosen and look forward to the first budget meetings,” Burke said. “I definitely wanted to be part of them.”

At Tuesday’s meeting commissioners also approved a low price quote for re-shingling of the county-owned food shelf and ACE senior citizen volunteer group building in Slayton.

A total of 13 potential contractors were solicited, leading to two quotes. The lower of the two, from James Lozinski Construction of Marshall, totaled $32,125.

A second quote from Mark Griebel Custom Homes Inc. of Pipestone was higher at $33,702.95 but specified a planned construction period from July 15 to July 22. Lozinski proposed construction at some point between July 15 and a latest expected completion date of Sept. 15.

Murray County Auditor Heidi Winter said it was specified in the request process that both the project costs and the completion date would be considered in the quote award.

The board asked Winter to seek clarification from Lozinski about when construction could be expected. Lozinski responded by offering an estimated Aug. 1 completion and assurance than the project would involve continuous construction from start to finish.

The board then approved Lozinski’s low bid at a $1,577 savings to the county. Commissioner James Jens noted that the completion dates were similar, and that either contractor could face an unavoidable delay because of weather conditions.

“Nine days isn’t very much extra time,” Thiner said. “When it’s that close, it’s better to go with the lowest bid.”

The board also acknowledged notification from Ducks Unlimited for two land purchases north of Slayton in Lake Sarah and Lowville townships. No official action from the board was required.

The purchases, organized with the goal of enhanced wildlife habitat, involve a total of 337 acres, slightly more than half of a 640-acre section.

Murray County has 20 square shaped townships with 36 sections each, which gives it a total land area of 460,800 acres. The acquisitions add up to slightly less than one acre for every thousand.

Commissioner Lori Gunninck said they could help to reduce potential future flood costs while helping wildlife. Thiner said the budget-related effects of the payments in leiu of taxes offered by the DNR and stated in letters from Ducks Unlimited increase county revenue for the near future, but eventually result in a yearly revenue loss after the land value is redetermined.