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SWCD reserves dwindle (08/27/2014)
By Chris Rogers
The Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) will just scrape by this year, according to staff projections. The SWCD expects to have $16,750 in more expenses than in revenues for the rest of 2014, further carving away at its $43,770 reserve balance. When the New Year begins, the SWCD will probably have $27,000 left. Ideally, the organization would have enough reserve funds to operate for six months without revenue, or nearly $170,000, SWCD Office Administrator Brein Maki told the SWCD Board earlier this month.

"Even though there's a projected shortfall, it's less than the fund balance. At least it's not more than the fund balance," said SWCD Chair Jim Riddle, breathing a sigh of relief that the agency would not go broke or be forced to lay off employees this year.

The SWCD relies on state grants and county aid for most of its funding. State grants have always been an unsteady funding source, but the state awards have been particularly meager for the last few years, leaving the SWCD to grapple with a fiscal crisis.

The SWCD does expect some revenues in January 2015, but if the organization cannot change its trend of revenue shortfalls and reserve spending, layoffs are a very real possibility. Previously, SWCD Director Daryl Buck thought he might have been forced to lay off employees before the end of this year. The Winona County Board pledged last winter that it would be willing to bail out the SWCD to prevent layoffs.

"There's a very good chance that we'll be coming to [you to ask the County Board] for more money from the county in the next month or two," Buck informed the SWCD Board.

Buck and Maki also described ideas for areas where SWCD staff could work on county projects in exchange for funding, such as the county feedlot program and water planning projects.

Maki said that the ideas are very preliminary, but that county staff members say that such services would fill a void in what they can offer.

SWCD Supervisor Leo Speltz asked about the status of discussions about the county absorbing SWCD staff, a concept advocated by former county administrator Duane Hebert. The SWCD Board sent a formal letter to the county in May asking whether SWCD staff would retain seniority in a merger with county unions. Answering the question will require the county to negotiate with several unions. Per union contracts, new employees do not normally carry over seniority from previous jobs.

"We're quite a ways away from that being a reality if it ever does [happen]," replied Buck, who has worked for the SWCD for nearly 25 years. "We have those questions in with the county and we haven't heard back." Buck added, "They've had a lot going on."

However, new ideas such as partnering with county feedlot and water planning workers offer some promise for the near term, Buck said.

State funding for both county and SWCD feedlot improvement efforts are expected to continue to dwindle as legislators and state officials shift funding priorities, he told the board. However, Buck discussed with county staff the possibility that SWCD staff could help prepare nutrient management plans for farmers with feedlots. The SWCD might be able to charge for such planning work farmers would potentially save on fertilizer costs thanks to such plans and/or qualify for federal reimbursements.

The county currently has funding for water planning, and state grantors have made it clear that watershed planning will be a funding priority in future years, Buck and Maki noted. The county could use help evaluating in the Mississippi-Winona watershed, and by completing a watershed specialist training this fall, Maki would be qualified to help with that project and future water planning collaborations, they explained.

"This will build capacity that we need for funding," Maki said.

The watershed evaluation, called a watershed restoration and protection strategy (WRAPS), seeks to identify "stressors," or the most significant problems, as well as solutions for a given watershed. That includes feedlot fixes, erosion control, and ponds for sediment and flooding control, Maki explained at the board meeting. "All of these are what we do, and the more we're involved in that WRAPS plan, the more it will show [that] this is what we do and it's needed in Winona County," she stated.

The SWCD Board agreed to fund half of the $800 training cost and ask the county to pay for the other half.

"Good discussion on exploring what options are there," said county commissioner and County Board liaison to the SWCD Steve Jacob of the partnership ideas. "We need to work together and see where things dovetail and make sure we're not charging taxpayers double [for conservation efforts]." If there are areas where the county and the SWCD can work together efficiently, that is great, he added.

Trading feedlot and watershed work for county funding or fees for service is a great idea, Riddle said. "I think it's really smart that if we did come back for an additional [county funding] request, that it be justified in the way that you're suggesting: Here's what you're getting for your money."

However, Riddle continued, there is still a long-term funding problem, especially given the tiny amount of reserves. "If something happens, you might use up the fund balance just to meet cash flow. It's a precarious position," he stated. "Everything we've talked about is to just scrape by," he continued. "Nothing that we've talked about is to build the fund balance back up. I don't know how we do that."

Most SWCDs across the state are experiencing similar fiscal problems, which is why the state association of SWCDs is pushing the legislature to grant SWCDs the power to tax, Buck said.

Speltz and Riddle both praised the SWCD staff's frugality. "The county gives us money, but they wanted us to be very accountable for every dollar that's spent. We can show here that we're not wasting and that's what they want to see," Speltz said, gesturing to reports on the organizations expenditures.

Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.  


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