A group representing Minnesota conservation officers is calling for a legislative audit after its members were allegedly asked to pay back up to $1 million in overpaid salaries.
The Minnesota Conservation Officers Association (MCOA) board of directors wrote a letter to legislative auditor Judy Randall asking for a full accounting of substantial salary overpayments made to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officers.
In the letter to Randall, conservation officers said they were collectively overpaid between $750,000 and $1 million. The letter claims the overpayments were due to incorrect calculations made by Minnesota Management and Budget staff after a contract settlement.
The MCOA claims it attempted to rectify the salary amounts before the checks were issued. According to the letter, “membership had wages garnished from their checks [on July 15, 2022] without consent in violation of MN State Statute 181.79 to address the identified overpayment.” Garnishments ranged from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars per officer.
“We have employees trying to figure out how to pay this back, and it is financially impacting them. We, at one point, were told that we were going to be allowed to use vacation … and that was pulled out with no explanation of why,” said Joe Stattelman, MCOA president. “Our members are frustrated because it really isn’t their burden to bear.”
MCOA alleged that during the summer months it continued to raise the issue with DNR staff but received little communication in response. In September 2022, members began receiving spreadsheets showing an average of $4,800 in overpayments, the letter says. MCOA members are being asked to consent to garnish their wages to rectify the overpayments, according to the letter.
The board indicated in the letter that failure to consent to wage garnishment could land them in conciliation court.
“Please know that the MCOA does not take issue with paying back any erroneously paid money,” the board wrote in the letter. “There is a significant lack of trust amongst our membership with any calculations being provided based on the egregious errors that [led] to this mistake in the first place.”
According to Caleb Silgjord, vice president of MCOA, this is the second time officers have experienced significant errors resulting from Minnesota Management and Budget’s inability to correctly implement retroactive salary increases.
He said similar errors have appeared in past contracts, which is sowing distrust among members and leadership.
“Our frustration comes as no one has really taken ownership … the transparency is not there and this whole thing seems like if they waited long enough it would rectify itself and just go away,” Stattelman said.
According to Silgjord, in the 2019-2021 contract, there were also delayed payments and canceled checks from a dozen members. Because of the previous mistakes, the MCOA is calling for “a full and trustworthy accounting of this costly error and the mistakes that brought about this occurrence.”
“Hopefully with the audit it will not only fix the problem but prevent it from happening again,” Silgjord said.
Alpha News reached out to the Minnesota DNR for comment but has yet to hear back.