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Funding conservation: Task force attempts to solve problems

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 01/14/2014 1:11 PM

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BLOOMINGTON — The Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts board of directors will consider ways to fund the state's SWCDs at their annual strategic planning retreat in early January.

The amount of funding coming from the state's general fund through the Conservation Delivery Grant has been decreasing for several years, said Mark Zabel, president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Counties that also fund Soil and Water Conservation Districts have faced funding challenges as well in recent years, leading some to reduce their funding to SWCDs.

In some counties, they contract with SWCDs to provide specific services and assign a funding level to those services. Others fund SWCDs at a flat amount.

State and federal funding has also moved to a more competitive grant approach where districts compete against each other for project funding.

It creates an uncertain environment for employees and leads to employees spending time chasing grants, Zabel said.

The uncertain funding environment affects SWCDs when they recruit employees, he said. Highly qualified employees often pass up SWCD jobs in favor of jobs that are more stable.

In light of the changing environment, the board in 2012 authorized the creation of a task force to investigate ways to generate stable funding for conservation. Kurt Beckstrom, of Mille Lacs County, chaired the task force.

The task force brought together a mix of supervisors and staff from all areas of the state, Beckstrom said. Twenty-three people served on the committee, which met in September, October and November.

The task force attempted to address two problems:

• Reliable operational funding needed to support an effective level of conservation is inadequate and doesn't increase with rising costs; and

• The current system for implementing on-the-ground conservation projects relies primarily on a competitive grant process, which often lead to the sporadic delivery of conservation across the state.

A number of ideas were considered, but ultimately two preferred options emerged, Beckstrom said.

The preferred options:

• An ad valorem tax levy, a general tax based on property value classification.

• A Soil and Water Conservation fee. This would be a fee assessed on properties based on a locally developed formula tied to soil and water conservation. It would be similar to a assessments now on property taxes for stormwater or drainage ditches.

Beckstrom said SWCDs desperately are trying to keep up with the demand for conservation.

LeAnn Buck, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said the board will meet and consider the recommendation Jan. 6-7. They will decide on next steps and lay out a strategy for proceeding.