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Efficiency vs. autonomy at heart of SWCD debate (03/10/2014)
By Chris Rogers
Could Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert be signing the paychecks for Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Manager Daryl Buck in the not-too-distant future? It is the latest development in negotiations between the two independent governmental bodies to save the SWCD from chronic financial struggles: a county proposal to absorb SWCD staff. Because the cash-strapped SWCD needs county funds, and county leaders have urged such changes, SWCD supervisors may find themselves in a tough position, caught between concerns that the county's deal would undercut their autonomy on the one hand, and dire financial problems on the other.

Under the plan, modeled on other localities and championed in part by Hebert, SWCD staff would become county staff. A formal proposal with precise details has not been made, but the county has suggested a plan in which county departments would handle some of the SWCD administrative and information technology tasks, while the SWCD workers would aid with county tasks. The SWCD location would not change.

County leaders said the two entities could spend less and do more by consolidating clerical work, taking advantage of county buying power for SWCD health insurance benefits, rearranging staff as workloads rise and fall, and sharing expertise between county and SWCD staff. At some point, the workload sharing could enable the county to cut one of its positions, Hebert said.

Under the plan, the elected SWCD Board of Supervisors would remain an independent body with sole authority over SWCD policy. The SWCD Board would retain a voice in managing its staff, while top-ranking county staff members would oversee SWCD staff's day-to-day operations.

SWCD Board Chair Jim Riddle and supervisor Mark Zimmerman were wary of the plan at last week's meeting.

"Once someone is an employee of the county, at the end of the day they're essentially working for the county," said Riddle. A deal that removes staff oversight from the SWCD Board would take "quite a bit of power away from the elected board," he added.

"I don't think it really takes anything away," Hebert responded. He said staff absorption has succeeded in Olmsted County, where the SWCD staff are county employees, and in Winona County, where Whitewater Joint Powers staff became county employees.

In years past, Hebert advocated for absorbing the SWCD completely into county government. In 2010, when county leaders learned the SWCD had $400,000 in reserves, they withheld county funding for the SWCD until it spent down its reserves. The SWCD did. Now, largely due to lost grant funding, the SWCD has had to rely on its relatively small reserve balance. Soon, it could be completely broke.

Last month, the SWCD proposed an agreement in which the county would guarantee cash-flow assistance for the SWCD and emergency bailouts when needed, in recognition of SWCD programs that benefit the county. In emails with county officials, Hebert lambasted the SWCD proposal for asking too much without allowing county oversight or offering a long-term solution to the SWCD's financial instability. County commissioner Wayne Valentine voiced a similar sentiment at last week's meeting, "If we provide emergency funding, we have to be accountable to the taxpayers and make sure that we have some accountability over where that money is being spent."

Hebert described the new staff absorption plan as a middle of the road option, since "the dissolution of the SWCD" is off the table.

Riddle's concerns about autonomy are valid and constituents share them, said Winona County commissioner Steve Jacob at the meeting. "But at some point, somebody's got to trust somebody," he said, referring to SWCD-county relations. "I feel good that the county's intentions are going to be, 'What we can do to facilitate the goals of this [Soil and Water] Board?' not to undermine its power. And, at this point, I think things have gone far enough that there's not a whole lot of options left on the table," he said.

SWCD Supervisor Mark Zimmerman said that he did not support the staff absorption plan. He questioned whether the plan would really save money and mentioned hearing from staffers at another SWCD that had been absorbed by its county. It went badly and they were now trying to regain their independence, he said.

"I would agree with you that in a perfect world, the SWCD would continue to operate as its own entity," Jacob replied. "That would be ideal, but given the writing on the wall and the direction things are going financially, [if you do not like the county proposal,] what is your solution? What is your alternative?"

If no changes are made, the SWCD will not have enough funds to make it through the year, according to Buck. There have always been big "ups and downs" in the state grant monies that fund the SWCD, but lately it has been more and more "down," he explained. Now the SWCD is faced with a short-term crisis and long-term outlook that is not much brighter.

The Winona Conunty SWCD is not alone. Many SWCDs across the state have been grappling with the same problem. Of course they are trying to become a higher funding priority for the legislature, but the statewide SWCD consortium has also proposed legislative action to provide alternative solutions, including fees for service and the power to tax. Minnesota counties have long opposed giving taxing powers to local governmental entities like housing authorities and SWCDs.

Jacob asked if the SWCD would back out of a partnership with the county if it were granted levy authority in the future. If that happened, the decision to tax or not to tax "would be a partnership with the county," Riddle replied. However, Riddle continued, getting taxing power is a long shot and the SWCD cannot afford to wait.

Jacob and Valentine agreed that they want to preserve the SWCD's conservation programs without increasing the county levy. It is unclear whether that perfect win-win situation is possible. Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman questioned whether the savings from combining staff would be enough to cover the SWCD's funding shortfalls. Riddle told county leaders that the plan "could, at least in the short-term, cost you more than you are paying directly to the district right now." If the SWCD asks for a bailout, that would cost the county, too, Hebert responded.

For now, the ball is in the SWCD's court, and its full board will discuss the issue on Wednesday. Riddle predicted it will be a quandary for the board, saying the board would share concerns about losing autonomy, "but at the same time there is the sobering reality of the budget situation that we're in."

For himself, Riddle said he could be convinced, and noted that "there's a good foundation" of great relationships between SWCD staff and county staff. If a proposal can be drawn up that preserves the SWCD's independence while capitalizing on more efficient staffing structures, it might work out, he said. "I don't think there is absolute closed-mindedness," he added.

A final deal would need approval from both the full SWCD Board and County Board and could take months.

In the meantime, county officials encouraged SWCD staff not to let budget fears overshadow their work. The County Board has not made any promises, but it urged the SWCD to ask for help before laying off employees or closing its doors. The cost sharing and design expertise that the SWCD offers farmers, enabling them to undertake conservation projects that benefit everyone such as buffer strips and cover crops to keep soil in the fields, replacements for leaking septics tanks, and better liners for manure pits are a valuable service for the community, county officials agreed. 


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