A new counter-counterproposal seeking more county funding may be the next step in the ongoing debate over the future of the cash-strapped Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). There was no formal decision at the SWCD meeting last week and some opposition to the concept, but a majority of the supervisors expressed support for proposing a service agreement that would spell out services the SWCD will provide in exchange for more county funds.
A wary courtship
As state funding and grants that finance much of the SWCD’s incentive-based, on-farm conservation programs have dwindled, the Winona County SWCD is joining hard-up soil and water districts across the state in turning elsewhere for support. The two most-discussed possibilities for funding include winning the power to tax through state legislation, which counties oppose and which local SWCD officials admit is “a long shot,” or securing increased support from Winona County, which typically gives the SWCD around $100,000 annually. The County Board turned down a request for more funding last December, but board members praised the services the SWCD provides local landowners and said they would consider giving more to keep the SWCD’s doors open and prevent employee layoffs. If nothing changes, the SWCD could run out of operational funds before the end of the year.
So the two governments have been talking about money and potential solutions. Winona County balked at a proposal by the SWCD earlier this spring, which would have guaranteed cash-flow assistance and emergency funds for the SWCD. In response, last month the county proposed absorbing SWCD staff into county staff rosters, a move county leaders said would streamline administrative tasks. Several SWCD supervisors described that proposal as “a takeover,” and SWCD Manager Daryl Buck advocated for a third way. County Commissioner and liaison to the SWCD Steve Jacob told SWCD supervisors last month “the ball is in your court” to bring a counter-counteroffer back to the County Board. It appears the SWCD is moving in that direction.
New idea debated
“I really think that should be on the table,” SWCD Board Chair Jim Riddle said of a service agreement that promises greater county funding in exchange for specified services. Riddle called the concept a “here’s what you get for your dollar kind of an agreement.” He added, “I don’t think SWCD employees being county employees is the only option.” SWCD Supervisors Leo Speltz and Mark Zimmerman voiced support for developing such a proposal.
SWCD Supervisor Paul Schollmeier, who spoke with officials from SWCDs that have been absorbed by their counties, noted that, “There wasn’t a consensus at all about whether they were happy about it.”
Referring to a meeting with county leaders, Zimmerman commented, “The whole cooperative meeting was about the county taking over employees. We didn’t get into [other options].”
Isn’t a services agreement what the county and the SWCD currently have? asked Jacob. “Yeah, but it’s an annual crapshoot,” that is unpredictable and unsustainable, Riddle asserted.
Responding to the suggestion by Riddle that the county also provide cost-share funding for SWCD programs, Jacob said, “To me it sounds like you’re really asking for a lot.” Jacob added, “If the county is going to fund it, we might as well do it ourselves.” Jacob pointed out the existence of other conservation programs and intergovernmental partnerships and stated, “Other groups are working together… water-related issues are going to be addressed with or without you.”
Jacob said that among his constituents during the last election, the desire for the SWCD to remain an entirely independent political body was very strong. He has stressed the importance of SWCD autonomy in previous meetings. However, that sentiment among citizens is “softening,” Jacob said. The same citizens who strongly opposed the county absorbing the SWCD are coming around to the idea, especially if the alternative is dissolution of the SWCD, he commented. “I didn’t think there was any thought of the Soil and Water district dissolving,” countered Zimmerman.
Speltz noted out that although the County Board was unwilling to provide the SWCD with more funding, “if the county would take over SWCD employees, it would increase the county budget.”
That is true, Jacob replied, “but in the bigger picture the service to the community is going to be better.” Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman could improve SWCD grant writing, and if grants fall through, SWCD will still have work on related county tasks, Jacob said. “We’re going to make sure these staff members don’t get laid off,” he added.
What about this talk of county layoffs? asked Zimmerman and Riddle, referring to Winona Post reports that the County Board discussed the possibility of making changes that might result in layoffs and agreed by consensus to further discuss such changes. Given that and the current situation with County Administrator Duane Hebert, “I’m glad we’re not ready to ink some agreement with the county,” Riddle commented.
Jacob explained that the County Board discussed many options for controlling the county budget and avoiding levy increases at that meeting and that there was no formal vote by the County Board.
County officials have not given any indication that SWCD positions would be considered for cuts if they were absorbed. Rather, County Administrator Duane Hebert has said that if SWCD staff are absorbed, task sharing might enable the county to cut a current county position in the future.
Riddle said that the county’s staff absorption proposal is not off the table, but commented, “I think we need to have concrete things to lay on the table [and to tell the County Board], ‘Here’s what works for us.’”