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Crow Wing SWCD seeks to get chummier with county board

Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor JoAnn Weaver (center) sits with SWCD District Manager Melissa Barrick at the county board's committee of the whole meeting Tuesday and asks that a county commissioner attend the district's monthly meeting in the hopes of bettering their relationship, which has been contentious in the past over issues such as funding. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District wants to put the contentious relationship a few of its supervisors sometimes had with the county board in the past and wishes to start anew.

District representatives expressed that desire to a few of the commissioners at Tuesday's committee of the whole in the hopes of a closer relationship and more funding from the county.

"We've had different relationships over time—closer to the county, further apart from the county—but we're at a new place here because two of our longtime supervisors have passed away in the last year," SWCD Supervisor JoAnn Weaver said of the late Bob Albrecht and Bob Becker.

The Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District was recently awarded "Conservation District of the Year" at the annual convention of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water

Districts and hopes to build on that momentum going forward.

"They were pretty strong-minded guys who knew what they wanted," she said to the majority of the board at the meeting. "We could use lots more money—and even 'some more' money—but first of all, we'd like to have a new and different relationship with the county commissioners."

Conservation district

The Crow Wing SWCD has taken a leadership role in lake and forestry protection, water quality improvement and public education.

"We'd like to develop a relationship with the county board again and have somebody come to our meetings and tell us if you had a question on how we're doing things or whatever," Weaver said.

SWCD District Manager Melissa Barrick said, "In the past, we had a delegated person from the county board to serve as a liaison. ... I think there was a lot of conflict between the Bobs and the county board, and I think that might have caused some of that (liaison relationship) to go away."

Becker retired from the SWCD board and the district board in turn appointed Weaver. Weaver was involved in city government, most recently serving as mayor of Breezy Point. She has a passion for gardening and bees and is a long-term Pelican Lake resident.

"It's pretty common practice to have a county commissioner attend those meetings. It just opens up the lines of communication," said Chris Pence, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources conservationist and former manager of Crow Wing County Environmental Services.

Soil and water conservation districts are funded through a variety of sources. Many of their program administration dollars and funding for landowner projects are state dollars allocated by the Legislature and passed through the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, or BWSR.

General operating funds are obtained from BWSR, counties, fees for service and grants or partnership agreements with the federal government or other conservation organizations.

"The contentious issue has been funding, and I understand perfectly well the soil and water conservation district would like to build a better relationship with the county board ... to provide funding, said Tim Houle, county administrator. "That's where the rubber has historically hit the road."

Funding cuts

During the Great Recession and funding cuts of that period, the county eliminated an annual appropriation to the district. In exchange, it provided to the district about $40,298 worth of rent at the county land services building and information technology services, instead of $150,000 in funds in times before.

"I don't like to beat around the bush. I don't think (board) representation is the real underlying issue. I always think good communication is a positive thing," Houle said. "I think the underlying issue is probably funding. ... I do think an in-kind contribution is essentially a cash contribution."

Soil and water conservation districts are political subdivisions of the state. Supervisors serve four-year staggered terms. These non-partisan positions have been filled by local elected officials since the first SWCD was formed in 1937.

"I'd be lying if I said we didn't want money. We do want more money ... but I'm not asking you to make any decisions—and we aren't—right now, but we want a better relationship because we think with a good relationship comes a better understanding," Weaver said.

The Crow Wing SWCD has completed over 18 Reinvest in Minnesota conservation easements for forest and lake protection, which includes 900 acres and almost 9 miles of shoreline of developable land.

"You guys see all kinds of people throughout the year that are all asking for money, but what we want to see is where can we have a 'win-win,' where can we help you and assist," Barrick said.

The district has also received more than $2 million in Clean Water, Land and Legacy Grant funds and $40,000 in federal grants from 2016-17.

Projects included reducing 24 pounds of phosphorus and 4 tons of sediment, 17 curb-cut rain gardens and two major stream restoration projects, nine forest stewardship plans for 955 acres, $90,000 for shoreline erosion and stormwater runoff projects and more.

"I can tell you, value for dollars, we can give back a whole lot more—your money will buy more—with the things that we are capable of doing," Weaver said.

Water quality

Serpent Lake near Crosby benefits from a $1.2 million watershed program grant BWSR awarded to the Crow Wing SWCD in 2014 to fund projects that would reverse the trend in declining water quality.

"Implementation of the county water plan, the county does a great job ... but it cannot implement the rest of that plan by the current staffing levels ... but that's when the role of a conservation district steps in, and they've implemented the plan on behalf of the county," Pence said.

"Having worked in the office back in 2008, and Melissa and I having gone to, with Commissioner (Rosemary) Franzen, to some of those water taskforce meetings with the Bobs. It wasn't fun, it was very combative ... and so we didn't continue those because they weren't productive," Pence added.

Soil and water conservation districts expanded their focuses beyond agriculture to also provide assistance in forested, lakes and urban areas of their communities, according to the SWCD.

"I think we need to do a better job of the district, telling you the story of what they've done and what they can provide, and I think it would be great for them to hear back from you saying, 'These are our priorities. Can you help us work on some of these issues?'" Pence said.

Districts have also expanded their base of clientele to include not only private landowners, but other units of government such as counties, cities, townships and watershed districts.

"I know you can't decide today," Weaver said. "It's sort of like a first date among friends: We think we like each other, so let's see what we can make out of this. ... If the relationship leads to money, we'd be very happy, and it would be a good investment on your part."

Frank Lee

Voted most likely in high school ... "not to be voted most likely for anything," my irreverent humor (and blatant disregard for the Oxford comma) is only surpassed by a flair for producing online videos to accompany unbiased articles about Crow Wing County about, say, how your taxes are being spent, by your elected officials, on issues or topics that matter to YOU.

Writing local feature stories about interesting people in the community, however, and watching and discussing movies are among my passions. ... Follow me on Twitter at either of these accounts: @DispatchFL (for news) or @BDfilmforum (for movies).

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