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Administrator's departure remains mystery; county personnel records show history of praise, raise

BEMIDJI - After more than a decade on the job, Tony Murphy is set to walk away May 1 as Beltrami County's administrator.

Little is clear about what his plans are afterward or why the county's top appointed official would leave a job paying more than $104,500 per year.

Last month, when he submitted a resignation letter to Beltrami County commissioners, Murphy said he had a pending job offer and planned to take time to consider additional employment opportunities.

Earlier this month, Murphy, 50, said he wasn't prepared to disclose his plans publicly, and he could not be reached Friday for comment.

"I haven't heard about where he's going," said Commissioner Jack Frost, adding two or three counties near the Twin Cities had contacted Murphy about working for them. The commissioner also said he wouldn't be surprised if Murphy were to work in tandem with his wife, Deanna, the president of Strengths Strategy Inc. who delivers leadership training and coaching.

Murphy's departure is a blow to the county, he said Friday, and both sides had previously talked in general about the possibility.

"In terms of his leaving, that time just came to pass," Frost said. "We're looking as a board, 'This is going to be tough'" to replace Murphy.

The departing administrator performed a "tremendous job," said Frost, adding he and other commissioners decided the county needed a professional head hunter to find Murphy's replacement.

"I have been a Tony supporter to the max," he said.

The county board will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the County Administration Building, 701 Minnesota Ave. NW., to interview three executive search firms: Brimeyer Fursman, Personnel Decisions International and Springsted Inc. Commissioners likely will pick one to find Murphy's replacement in a search expected to take up to six months.

Murphy's personnel record, on file with the county's Human Resources department, spells out details of the administrator's tenure, but offers no insight into why Murphy resigned.

Those records show Murphy was hired in 2001 at an hourly rate of $37.50, the equivalent of $78,000 per year. He currently earns $50.27 per hour, totaling $8,713 a month or $104,561 in annual salary.

When he vacates his office May 1, he will be paid for about 280 hours of paid time-off, which he has accrued over his tenure, according to Kay Mack, Beltrami County auditor/treasurer.

Beltrami County does not provide post-employment health benefits, and Mack isn't aware of a severance payment scheduled for Murphy.

He will keep his retirement fund through Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA. Murphy also will have access to an additional retirement account created in 2006, when the county agreed to contribute 3 percent of his annual gross salary toward a supplemental retirement program.

"Murphy has provided exemplary service to the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners and the citizens of Beltrami County his (his) capacity as county administrator," states an excerpt of the amended contract.

The county has contributed 3 percent of his annual salary for each of the past six years. Currently, Murphy earns $261 per month for the fund.

His personnel records, obtained by the Pioneer, show:

Murphy began work in Beltrami County on Oct. 15, 2001, coming from Ashland, Wis., where he had been employed as city administrator for seven years and as assistant city administrator/economic development director for two and a half years. In addition to his initial $78,000 annual salary when he started in Beltrami County, Murphy was allowed $4,000 in relocation costs.

He received the same benefits as non-union administrative appointed employees, including paid time off, health insurance, life insurance, PERA, holidays and other leaves of absences.

In 2010, he also began receiving $60 a month toward the cost of a cell phone with a data plan. The stipend is intended to cover a portion of the cost of the employee-owned cell phone.

His contract states Murphy would receive a lump sum severance payment - now equivalent to six months of salary - if he were terminated without cause.

Severance is listed on a "termination" clause in Murphy's contract. Regarding resignation, it says Murphy agrees to give the county 60 day's notice.

The personnel file also shows commissioners regularly gave Murphy high performance marks.

His first review was done on April 16, 2002, six months after his hire.

"Mr. Murphy's performance was rated as outstanding, the highest rating, based on exceeding the majority of the objectives established for the position," states the summary of that performance evaluation.

Murphy continued to receive "outstanding" reviews each year through 2006. In 2008, he was "highly commended for many accomplishments."

The records also show Murphy "received high marks for his performance" in 2009 and "met the expectations of the county board" in 2010.

His last review came in May 2011, about a year ago, when he "met or exceeded the expectations of the county board during the past year."

Neither of the two most recent reviews came with a pay increase, according to the personnel file. There are no documents that dictate a salary increase for either 2011 or 2012. His current salary was set in 2010.

Frost said he didn't believe Murphy planned to leave due to a lack of a raise since commissioners weren't taking raises for themselves or offering pay increases in negotiations with employee unions.

"There was no talk of a raise or no raise in terms of performance" at the end of 2011, Frost said Friday.

From 2001 to December 2009, Murphy received numerous pay raises, although in October 2003, he declined a salary increase for 2004.

"The state financial crisis has forced Beltrami County to make many difficult budget decisions for next year's operations," he wrote in a memo to commissioners. "Recommendations to reorganize departments, reassign personnel or eliminate positions are never easy. While I believe that we are making good decisions, the very personal impacts of laying someone off or eliminating their job can be heart wrenching.

"We have done well to minimize those impacts but I feel a deep sense of sadness that there are a few good employees who are no longer with us. In consideration of these kinds of concerns for past and current county employees, it does not feel appropriate that I accept a salary increase for 2004."

While he knew the cost savings would not be large, Murphy continued, he could not accept a salary increase while he had recommended the elimination of other county employees' jobs.

Steve Wagner, editor at the Pioneer, contributed to this report.