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County, SWCD merger talks continue

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news Bemidji, 56619
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Negotiations leading to merging the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District with Beltrami County will continue, commissioners voted Tuesday.

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Unless something like that happens, Beltrami SWCD staff will need to go part time, which will affect what the agency can do, Chris Parthun, SWCD executive director, told commissioners.

Commissioners met during their Tuesday work session with Parthun and SWCD Board Secretary Jay Backstrom.

The two sides have been negotiating for months after it was revealed that the 2010 county budget would end administrative support to the SWCD, just paying for projects.

The SWCD Board met in late December, Backstrom said, and "gave consent to the concept but with several concerns."

First, the SWCD Board asks for the continuation of county administrative support during a transition period, and second that "the accomplishments of the district are a direct result of district staff, and how will they be viewed and have merit blending into the new arrangement," Backstrom said.

"We also want to ensure that the statutory and management compliance be executed," he said, adding that state law gives specific responsibilities to SWCD boards on water quality issues.

One of the big hang-ups, it appears, is the role the elected SWCD Board would play in any merger. Backstrom said the board has statutory obligations, but county officials say the board can still perform those while serving as an advisory committee to the Beltrami County Board.

"What we have is a willingness to engage in collaboration," said Commissioner Joe Vene. "The devil is in the details. The role of the SWCD Board in an advisory capacity should not be minimized."

Vene said he would support a merger "if it should come to pass."

But Commissioner Jim Lucachick opposes the merger, and was the lone dissenting vote during the regular meeting later with commissioners voted 4-1 to continue negotiations leading to the merger.

"I'll be frank -- I don't see any alternatives," said Lucachick, one of the county members who has been negotiating with the SWCD. "I saw one direction and that's where we want to go."

Ending up to $60,000 in annual administrative support to the SWCD cripples it, officials say, so the only way it can survive is to move into the county fold as an office of the County Environmental Services Department.

But Lucachick said he fails to see where the county gains any savings over the move, or that the move would make SWCD more attractive for grants.

""I'm not much of a fan to pull this under the county roof, and I don't see how it provides savings to the taxpayers," he said. "I don't see how this would make it better than it is now."

"It's a consolidation of government," said Commissioner Jack Frost, who during the regular meeting was elected County Board chairman. "I see economies in not having three separate entities."

Parthun said the Beltrami SWCD is now working with the Marshall-Beltrami SWCD to take over the latter's Beltrami County projects and allow a Marshall SWCD.

The merger should allow staffing at five or six full-time equivalent positions, down from nine now, Frost said. "Consolidating into Beltrami County has the potential to deliver services more effectively, and I see this as shrinking government."

"They can't survive the way they're going," said Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks. He suggested six month's administrative support as a transition, become part of the county July 1.

"We consent to the concept, but we want to be involved, as this moves forward," SWCD's Backstrom said.

The goal is to present a recommendation that both sides agree to by March 1, the time when Parthun said financing would become thin.

"The concept is short on details," said County Administrator Tony Murphy. ""We can carve out a unique niche for the SWCD Board to provide advice to the County Board on waters and forests."

While voting to proceed, Commissioner Jim Heltzer said he was "reluctant to take on this risk without knowing staff numbers and how to pay for them."

That's part of the details, both Parthun and Murphy said.

The Beltrami SWCD is statutorily charged with the protection of Beltrami County's soil and water resources. It delivers a wide range of programs and services in response to the agricultural, environmental and recreational needs of private landowners.

The agency in 2009 had about a $335,000 budget.

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