Since she was only 22 years old, Laura Ihrke has been a dedicated public servant, committing each and every day to serve the taxpayers and voters of Steele County inside the Auditor’s Office.
Now, 42 years later, Ihrke will be stepping down as the Steele County auditor and away from her lifetime career, entering the world of retirement.
“I never thought I would be here forever,” Ihrke laughed, thinking about her first day on the job inside the Auditor’s Office in an entry-level clerical position. “I was excited to come work for the county … It just doesn’t feel like 42 years, but I guess when you like your job, and you like coming to work, that’s what happens.”
Despite happiness for their colleague and friend, the feelings throughout the county employees are certainly bittersweet as they prepare to send Ihrke off Tuesday night following both her last day of work and her last Board of Commissioners meeting.
“It is going to a be a lot of tribal knowledge that is going to walk out of this building when she leaves, we’re going to miss Laura the Auditor and all the technical and work knowledge she has,” said County Administrator Scott Golberg. “But more than that, we’re going to miss Laura the person. She is such a dedicated public servant who really cares about her work and the public she’s been working with all these years. She cares about her employees and is just an all-around very fun person.”
Climb to the top
Though she may have started doing basic clerical work, 10 years into being a county employee, Ihrke found herself having a conversation with then-auditor John Hallenberger, who was set to retire from office at the end of 1990.
“He encouraged me to run, and at first I just wasn’t sure,” Ihrke admitted. “But then I realized, it’s either do it or regret it, so I did it.”
At the time, the role of county auditor was an elected position, and Ihrke found herself running alongside three other individuals vying for the role. While one person did eventually drop out post-filing period, Ihrke said she still put in a lot of hard work to win over trust and votes across Steele County.
And it being 32 years ago, there was only one real way to campaign: door knocking on every home.
Regardless of the long hours she put into door knocking, Ihrke had to buckle in that election night for work. Because of how busy the Auditor’s Office is on election night, Ihrke said she’s never really had the luxury of keeping track of who is ahead in local, state or even national races. Throughout that night in 1990, however, Ihrke said her peers would come up and whisper to her that she was, indeed, winning.
Ihrke won that first election, and every election she’s had since, she ran unopposed.
“I always did kind of worry during each filing period — what if I lose my job?” she laughed. “I would be nervous up until 5 p.m. on the last day of filing and then just have a sigh of relief.”
Though it is a crucial part of the county infrastructure, not everyone is fully aware of the responsibilities the county auditor takes on. Ihrke said it really boils down to three main areas: elections, taxes and paying the bills.
“When I first started, we used paper ballots for elections. Then we moved to the infamous punch cards, which I thought was unfortunate they didn’t work because I liked the system, but people just didn’t punch hard enough,” Ihrke said. “Because of the paper ballots, we used to be up until the wee hours — one time I didn’t get home until 5 a.m. as my husband was getting ready for work. With this new system and the machines, we get out a lot earlier.”
Election ballots weren’t the only part of Ihrke’s job that began in paper. Anything regarding taxes used to be done entirely through paper, and Ihrke vividly remembers the large sheets for delinquent taxes and recording everything in the large tax books.
“I remember typing up checks, too,” Ihrke said. “I guess you don’t really realize all the changes that are happening as they happen.”
Aside from process changes, Ihrke has also seen plenty of changes in county leadership over her four decades, too. Luckily, she said she’s always appreciated each county commissioner that has been elected during her time in the Auditor’s Office, and seeing her peer she has worked with the longest — Golberg — get promoted to county administrator confirmed the appreciation the commissioners had for county staff, too.
“She’s got one year one me,” Golberg laughed, explaining how he started in the environmental services department one year after Ihrke first came to the county. “At first, we were working in two separate departments in two separate buildings … I was at the annex building and she was at the courthouse.”
When the Steele County Administration Building was built in 1996, Golberg said for the first time he was working in the same facility as Ihrke, yet they still only knew each other on a more “casual” basis.
“When I stepped into the administrative role, our working relationship changed pretty significantly,” said Golberg, who became the administrator in 2017. “At that point, the auditor is really a key component to a lot of what we’re doing directly with our board actions and also taking minutes of board meetings.”
“We have become a lot closer over these last five years,” he said.
The next phase
Though Ihrke has never been challenged on the ballot since her initial election, the Steele County Board of Commissioners made the move in March to no longer require an election to fill both the auditor and treasurer positions.
State statute on county offices — specifically on combining or making appointment positions — was amended in 2019 to “streamline” the process, an effort that was supported by the Minnesota Association of County Officers.
Because there were no prerequisites for people to file to run for the county treasurer or auditor position, despite the heavy emphasis on financial literacy that both jobs entail, Golberg said earlier this year he felt it was crucial to make this transition to best protect the county and its residents.
Ihrke was scheduled to run for another term this year, but the action taken at the beginning of the year made it so she didn’t have to take another election year into consideration with her retirement plans — something Ihrke said did make her decision slightly easier knowing the next person to take the position would be capable and qualified.
For the time being, Golberg said Chief Deputy Auditor Brenda Blood will serve as the interim auditor. Golberg said the county will also consider further consolidating the Auditor’s Office with the financial department, adding Steele County is one of only nine counties left in the state to combine the auditor and treasurer position.
With Blood filling in for the short-term, though, Golberg and the Board of Commissioners feel they have nothing to worry about.
“Laura always had all her ducks in a row. She had the best equipment and she trained her people well,” said Commissioner Greg Krueger.
“Operations are in good hands because Laura has left it in a good place, “Golberg added. “The ship will keep sailing as we move forward, we got some good tribal knowledge with Brenda and the rest of the staff Laura trained.”
Though she has put in more than her fair-share of time at the county, Ihrke said the decision to retire was not one she took lightly.
“I considered staying longer, but I realized I have to live my life,” Ihrke said. “We already work most of our life, but I have to think about enjoying it, too, outside of work.”
Though she doesn’t have any immediate plans following her retirement, Ihrke said she certainly would love to travel and visit family out of state. She also is a proud grandmother to nine grandkids, with ages ranging from 7 months old to 15 years old, and expects she will readily dedicate more of her time to them.
Regardless, she said she will miss her staff, her colleagues and the public she has served for most of her life. And she will certainly be missed in return for a variety of reasons.
“She has just been a real joy to work with,” Krueger said. “She is so knowledgeable, so thorough, and whenever elections happened we knew we didn’t have anything to worry about. Laura has been a really big asset to Steele County for 42 years.”
With that permanent grin on her face, Ihrke could only reflect back with positivity on her career with the county.
“I am grateful for all the years I’ve had here, all the people I’ve met along the way and all those I’ve helped,” Ihrke said. “It’s really about being a good person and helping people, and I am glad I got to do that here.”
It’s soon to be a new year, and that means our local legislators will be hard at work for the upcoming session.
Superintendent Jeff Elstad recently met with State Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, and State Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, to discuss priorities for the district, local taxpayers and more.
“The meeting went very well,” Elstad said. “One thing we shared with them is trying to find longterm financial stability versus a short term. I think with the surplus everyone’s eyes got big and superintendents across the region want to get creative to find something that will give us that long term stability without making it a feast or famine situation down the road.”
One of the items Elstad brought to the table was the idea that a special education cross subsidy could be something that lines up nearly to do the dollar of what is asked of the community in an additional levy.
“I think if we can help solve that cross subsidy formula, it would be a great benefit to the districts and our local taxpayers to take some of that burden off their shoulders.” Elstad said.
Being a former special education teacher himself, Elstad has brought his passion around funding special education across multiple facets. Earlier this year, Elstad was elected to the National Superintendent Board and a focus he brought to those discussions were bring attention to the inadequacies of the federal government funding special education.
Additionally, Elstad said another topic which was discussed is tax equalization to lift some of the burdens placed on the shoulders placed on property owners in the district to become a tax break.
“Both parties have been long time advocates for tax breaks and reductions,” Elstad said. “We feel that this is something we could build bipartisan support with because it makes sense for everyone. It will help the schools and also keep money in the taxpayer’s pockets.”
Jasinski said he will often reach out to Elstad and other superintendents in his district for input to ensure he is gathering good information and representing his constituents to the best of his abilities.
During last year’s session, the Owatonna School District, Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, and Riverland Community College came together to present a bill to potentially bring $1 million for the 2023 fiscal year with the intent to add mechatronic equipment at both the new Owatonna High School and Riverland campuses.
The whole bill was comprised of three key components with the hopes of gaining grant money to assist the city and region in expanding, attracting and retaining a talented workforce according to Chamber President Brad Meier.
“The bill didn’t end up passing last year,” Meier said. “We’re trying again this year. If we’re able to locate some dollars to do this before the legislative session, we’ll adjust it going in but we still plan to push it forward this time and if we’re successful, we will have some really good opportunities to invest in education.”
Because last year’s session was not a budget year, along with other hiccups, the bill was not approved but Elstad, Jasinski and Petersburg have plans to bring it back to the table again with hopes of moving forward.
“Having this pass is a priority,” Jasinski said. “I believe it’s important to Owatonna to have access to this equipment for both students and employers in the area to keep the workforce and economy strong.”