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County debates Soil and Water levy issue

It took one failed vote, one inconclusive straw poll and nearly two hours of discussion Tuesday before members of the Carlton County Board came to agreement on a request from the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

The point of discussion concerned future housing for the SWCD, which District Supervisor Jim Nynas said has been “bounced around for many years without a permanent home.” In fact, Nynas said, the local unit of the SWCD has been criticized by the state in the past for not having a permanent facility, one with in-house resources for a water testing facility separate from its office space. The SWCD is currently housed in rental space in the former Stearns Manufacturing facility in Carlton.

Earlier this year the county offered the SWCD office space in the Vernon Insurance building on Chestnut Street in Carlton, which the county purchased to house the Extension Service as well as other county offices. Nynas informed board members on Tuesday, however, that the SWCD building committee and board of supervisors has determined that the space would not meet the District’s needs, citing lack of adequate square footage for its water sampling process lab, office space, area to meet with landowners and outside storage, among other things.

“For a number of reasons, we do not think the benefits (of the building) outweigh the shortfalls,” said Nynas, adding that the space proposed for the SWCD would amount to a 36 percent reduction in size from its current location.

Nynas then went on to request that the board submit a resolution of support to help pave the way for a new building proposal the SWCD has been working on through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Program. The proposal, which Nynas reminded commissioners has been in the works for the past two years, is for a 10,000-square-foot building adjacent to the current Carlton County Transportation Building in rural Carlton that would cost in the neighborhood of $2 million.

Nynas explained that on the advice of former Carlton County Economic Development Director Pat Oman, the SWCD went to the USDA to seek loan funding for the building. Unknown to any of them at the time, however, was the fact that the USDA has never before granted a loan to a SWCD anywhere in the region because SWCDs do not have levy authority, which the USDA requires to guarantee the loan.

Nynas added that the process for the local building project is currently at a critical tipping point, because the state legislature is willing to consider granting the Carlton County SWCD one-time levy authority in order to move the project forward. In order to do so, Nynas said the state is asking Carlton County to pass a resolution of support for the project as well as the District's right to levy for it if necessary.

“This is the one chance this project has to move forward,” said Nynas. “The SWCD has been looking for a home for 20 years, and we’re still not there. This is a chance to get a building that will truly meet our needs. The SWCD brings a lot of money into this county, to its landowners and taxpayers, and we’re making an impact on the county that will protect its soils and groundwater for a long time into the future. That’s got to be worth something.”

Nynas explained if the District were successful in gaining the right to levy to help cover the expense of the building project, the impact to taxpayers would be minimal. He said if the levy was for 30 years at approximately 3 percent interest, the tax impact on a residence with a market value of $146,000 would be $3.66 a year. If the loan were paid back in less time than that, he added, the impact would not be significantly higher and it would save a considerable amount of money in interest payments.

While commissioners did not disagree with the SWCD’s need for adequate space, several were uncomfortable with the idea of having the resolution of support coming from the county. Commissioner Marv Bodie stated he felt it is the state’s responsibility to determine whether a SWCD is granted levy authority, not the county, since a SWCD is an independent political subdivision of the state.

Carlton County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert explained while the county does issue a discretionary tax levy of approximately $100,000 annually on behalf of the SWCD to cover staffing, the District is a separate governing body from the county, with elected officials similar to cities, school districts and townships. But unlike those entities, it has never been granted levying authority to cover the balance of its costs. Instead, the SWCD relies on various streams of grant funding.

Though the original intent of the current legislation was to grant the Carlton County SWCD the right to issue a one-time levy specifically to help fund a building project, Gassert said the nature of the legislation somehow changed mid-course. As it now reads, it would give the county the right to issue an additional levy on behalf of the SWCD building project, which neither the county nor the SWCD wants.

“The state is trying to put it back on us as a mandate, even though the SWCD is an independent agency,” said Commissioner Dick Brenner. “I think it’s up to the state to determine if the SWCD has levying authority and any resolution in support of it should be crafted to indicate that.”

Nynas agreed, saying the SWCD would prefer such a levy be granted directly to them and not put on the shoulders of the county.

“We want to do what’s right,” he added.

Commissioner Bob Olean presented a motion in support of a resolution that acknowledges the work and value of the local SWCD, emphasizes the fact that the SWCD is not a county agency, and supports a one-time levying authority for the District in order to move the project forward.

The motion failed on a vote of 3-2, with Bodie, Tom Proulx and Gary Peterson casting the dissenting votes.

“The way I see it,” said Bodie, “we now have three options — to change the wording of the resolution, oppose it or say nothing.”

“I don’t want it coming back from our constituents that we’re giving approval for the SWCD to levy,” said Peterson. “I don’t think we need to be involved with this.”

After an informal poll of the Board, the wording of the motion was then adjusted to reflect the fact that the Board “is not opposed” to having the state grant the SWCD one-time levying authority, and the motion passed unanimously.

The resolution will now be passed on to the legislature.