by Chris Rogers
A proposed merger with Winona County divided the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) board between those who do not trust Winona County and see its recent proposal to absorb SWCD staff as a takeover, and those who see there is little choice. If nothing changes, the SWCD may run out of funds before the end of the year. "The ball is in your court," Winona County Commissioner Steve Jacob told the conflicted SWCD officials in a meeting earlier this month.
The county and SWCD have been discussing the SWCD's financial dilemma for months. Last month, County Administrator Duane Hebert rejected a SWCD proposal that would have guaranteed county bailouts for the district. In a joint meeting two weeks ago, Hebert, with support from Jacob and county commissioner Wayne Valentine, unveiled a counteroffer that would turn the SWCD staff into county staff. County staff and SWCD staff would share tasks, the county would pay the SWCD staff, top county staff would oversee the SWCD's daily operation, and the SWCD Board of Supervisors would continue to set SWCD policies. Consolidation would boost efficiency and resolve the longterm insolvency of the SWCD, Hebert argued. The full SWCD board discussed the county proposal last week.
SWCD supervisor Mark Zimmerman was taken aback. "To me it seemed it was all about the county taking over the staff here. And the county also said that we should have trust in each other," Zimmerman said, referring to a comment by Jacob at the joint meeting that the county and district should trust each other. "For me it's hard to have that trust after what the county did to me the last ten years," he stated.
In an interview, Zimmerman explained that he was referring to his troubles resolving disputed tax assessment hikes.
Echoing the lack of trust, SWCD Manager Daryl Buck pointed out that last November, the SWCD asked the county for $139,000. Instead, the county gave the district just over $100,000. If the county absorbs SWCD staff, the county's costs would be twice that $139,000 request, he said. "That really concerns me. What that tells me is they don't trust us," he said. "It's costing the county more to do this [to absorb SWCD staff], but they weren't willing to do less. It doesn't make sense to me why the county would be willing to do this, other than they don't trust the district."
Buck continued, "It really makes me wonder if I trust the county if I'm going to be a county staff."
"I'm a little surprised," Jacob responded, who was present at both the joint meeting and the SWCD meeting last week. "You were at the table that day," of the joint meeting, he told Buck. The county and SWCD talked about absorption at the joint meeting and none of these concerns were raised then, Jacob said.
That is because the conversation at the joint meeting started with absorption as a premise, Buck replied. Hebert criticized the lack of county oversight offered in the SWCD automatic bailout proposal leading up to the joint meeting, and, at that meeting, Valentine said that funding requires accountability. "I understand that the ball is in our court, but we were really only given one option," Buck said.
Buck is hoping for consideration of a third way. He suggested as much at the joint meeting, describing the arrangement the SWCD had with the county years ago, in which the county budget set aside money to pay for all of the SWCD's staff. Hebert dismissed the idea, saying there would likely be regulatory difficulties.
"I really believe there could be another option where we do have an agreement with the county with how our funds could be used that supports us better financially but doesn't take the district staff and make them county staff," Buck said. "To me it just seems like that has never been even approached."
Jacob replied, "The ball is in your court right now. Put your proposal together and send it back to the county."
The county proposal is not about a lack of trust for how the SWCD spends its money, said Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman at the SWCD meeting. The point of the county proposal is that consolidation would boost efficiency and produce "economies of scale," he explained. "I think the key difference between providing funding to solve the shortfall versus more of a structural change is a short-term versus long-term fix," he stated. For example, by consolidating, "if one of the [SWCD] staff loses half of their funding within a certain part of the year, maybe we have another [county] program that is funded that could take advantage of that employee's expertise," Gilman said. Having SWCD staff help with some county work might someday save the county money by allowing it to cut a position, Hebert said in an interview.
Gilman said that the arrangement also would minimize costs between the two governments by relieving the district's cash-flow problems, using county power for purchases, and "minimizing overhead costs because they get absorbed into areas [the county] already does" like providing information technology services.
"I'm not convinced there would be economies of scale, considering the uniqueness of the work that our staff are doing," countered SWCD supervisor Paul Schollmeier.
SWCD Board Chair Jim Riddle said that in the past, when the county was interested in consolidation, he, too, feared for the SWCD autonomy. Now, however, Riddle is coming around. It all depends on the fine print of the agreement with the county, he said.
"No model [for consolidation] is perfect. All models are going to take engagement and correction, but we have a problem," Riddle said, pointing to a roller coaster-like line graph depicting the district's funding. "Basically, were looking at two options: getting an agreement with the county or this very long-range, I think, long shot state funding change where we can raise our own money," he added, referring to proposed legislation sought by SWCDs statewide for the power to tax. "We've got to do something."
The final agreement with the county "has got to meet some really important criteria, but that's where I would like to see us head," Riddle continued, asking his fellow supervisors to support further work towards consolidation.
Under the plan, both the county and the district would be "willing participants" with the freedom to withdraw unilaterally at any time, Jacob said. "If you feel like you are being taken advantage of," make sure the contract allows the district to withdraw anytime, he said. "That way you can take small steps in trying this, and see if it's beneficial," he continued. "It needs to be beneficial to both sides, and if it's not beneficial to both sides, then neither side is going to agree to it."
Part of the trust issue is that the county played a role in bringing about the SWCD's current predicament, Zimmerman asserted. In 2010, the SWCD "had a $400,000 fund balance, and the county said, 'We aren't going to give you any money this year because you've been hanging onto that balance,'" he said. "Our funding fluctuates so much, we should've held onto that fund balance for the lean years and we wouldn't be in this situation. I think this process started years ago, not just right now."
Grant-funding windfalls produced that surplus, but "you never offered any of that money back to the county," Jacob responded. "You always budgeted for a worst case scenario," he added.
"Let's just take that year off the table," interjected SWCD Office Administrator Brein Maki. "That's water under the bridge. All of us need to forget about that particular situation" and focus on the issue at hand, she continued.
"It is very frustrating" to never have stable funding, she said. The state Board of Soil and Water Resources (BWSR) representative at the meeting advised the SWCD not to count on grant funding. The county plan would be an opportunity to end our dependence on that undependable grant funding, Maki said.
"I don't feel like it's a hostile takeover in any way," she continued. "I do want to believe, whether I'm wrong or not, that the county really does want to help," she added.
"Things can be done to maintain the integrity and autonomy of both entities, really," commented County Attorney Karin Sonneman, who also represents the SWCD. She handed out county-SWCD agreements from Rock County and Olmsted County, where the SWCD staff have consolidated with the county. "Food for thought," she said.
The Soil and Water District agreed to ask SWCD officials in Olmsted and Rock counties about their county partnerships, to direct Sonneman to draft an agreement based on those those partnerships, and to discuss it all at the next meeting.