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Beltrami County, SWCD ponder 'cooperative' agreement

Taxpayers could save $374,000 by consolidating Beltrami County Environmental Services and the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District.

But County Administrator Tony Murphy and SWCD Board Chairman Jay Backstrom carefully call the proposal a "cooperative agreement" rather than a "merger" or "consolidation."

"It flies like a duck, it swims like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck," Commissioner Jim Lucachick said Tuesday when the proposal was presented to the County Board. "We just heard this proposal for 40 minutes. This is a county effort, it really is.

"We need to be honest with one another, we're bringing this into the county," Lucachick added. "We should say it is part of the county."

But under the draft agreement worked out between SWCD and county officials, the SWCD Board remains a free-standing board of elected officials, and would retain one employee.

"I respectfully disagree," Board Chairman Jack Frost said of Lucachick's assessment. "I see it as a cooperation that is not a growth of county government."

Murphy explained that the agreement calls for mutual responsibilities in preparing a consolidated annual work plan and in shared budget strategies based on the annual work plan.

The county would provide the personnel, equipment, office and other support, while the SWCD would retain its statutory obligations and serve in an advisory role to the County Board on "Resource Excellence" issues, he said, such as forest and water policies.

A liaison committee consisting of members of both entities would provide communication and problem-solving to ensure the cooperation fosters, Murphy said.

"The board of the SWCD is on board with this?" asked Commissioner Jim Heltzer.

"Everybody felt a lot more comfortable after meeting with (County Environmental Services Director) Bill Patnaude," Backstrom said. "The outcomes were good from that meeting."

County and SWCD officials have been meeting since late last year to find a way to keep the conservation agency viable as the county decided to end administrative funding to it. The county supports a policy of paying for projects with described outcomes, not in providing administrative support to keep the doors open.

As a result, the SWCD has scaled back its operations, waiting for a proposed joint venture between the county and it. Also, long-time Executive Director Chris Parthun was laid off.

"It is a cooperative agreement between the two entities," Patnaude told commissioners. "Both are looking at promoting environmental conservation in Beltrami County."

"This is not a takeover of the SWCD," Murphy said. Objectives for the agreement include better efficiency by avoiding duplication and overlap of resource efforts, effectiveness with more emphasis on resource projects with measurable results than on research and studies, and creating a partnership that removes turf barriers by focusing on resource needs.

Under the proposal, the SWCD board would retain one employee, Jerry Stensing, the district's stewardship forester who works with private landowners and others on forest plans and selling conservation trees.

That position, however, would be housed with the County Natural Resource Management Department. It is mostly self-sustaining, with Stensing contracting for services, Murphy said.

"He will be able to share his expertise with our county foresters, and our county staff and share with him," Murphy said.

Other SWCD functions, such as water planning and Wetlands Conservation Act enforcement, would be provided by staff in Patnaude's Environmental Services Department.

The Beltrami SWCD has already assumed the duties and responsibilities of the Beltrami County portion of the Marshall-Beltrami SWCD, which formally dissolved March 31, Backstrom said. The Beltrami SWCD will now have to redistrict itself to allow the new portion of mostly northwest Beltrami County to have representation on the Beltrami SWCD Board.

As a result, the 2009 Mar-Bel SWCD budget of $140,000 is zeroed out for 2010, Murphy said. Beltrami SWCD's budget of $335,705 in 2009 will shrink to $133,493, and Beltrami County Environmental Services will drop from $316,402 in 2009 to $285,037.

It means a savings of $374,000 on conservation spending to taxpayers, Murphy said, from $792,707 in 2009 to $418,530 in 2010.

"All the Mar-Bel staff have been laid off," he said, with Marshall SWCD assuming the Marshall County part of the jurisdiction. "Parthun was laid off from the Beltrami SWCD and Stensing continues. There will be administrative support within the county and consolidated planning."

He proposed a "Resource Excellence" model where members of the Beltrami SWCD Board could serve as non-voting members of the county's Parks and Trails Advisory Council to help frame recreation policy, and on the County Planning Commission, to help with land use and development policy.

The SWCD Board itself will advise the County Board on forest and water policy issues.

The county will probably have to add two employees to County Environmental Services, a resource specialist and a water specialist, he said.

"We'll still save," Murphy said. "We will need to get more sophisticated on the work plan and in getting grants and partnering with others."

"I hope this duck flies and swims better than it did before when we had an adversarial relationship," said Commissioner Joe Vene. "There's a whole bunch of good to be done here through a cooperative venture, or whatever we call it."

Backstrom said the SWCD as a board "will still have an opportunity to educate people."

Discussions between the two entities "were hard but very respectful on what can we do for the resources," Murphy said.

No action was taken Tuesday, but Murphy suggested the board fill a vacant resource specialist position, consider creating a water specialist position, review and adopt the cooperative agreement and develop a 2010-11 cooperative work plan.

The two entities will also need to pursue project grants, he said.