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Beltrami County may absorb Beltrami SWCD

The Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District would become a Beltrami County government function under a plan revealed last week.

Beltrami County commissioners gave their consent to the concept Tuesday, and the plan now goes before the Beltrami SWCD Board next week.

But the plan was negotiated in several meetings this fall between county and SWCD representatives, who believe the merger is the best way to keep the SWCD operational.

Beltrami County in its 2010 budget is ending administrative support to the SWCD, which has varied from $30,000 to $60,000 annually, which the SWCD says spells a death knoll to the independent agency.

"The consensus is to pull the SWCD under county government," said County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick. "It would become a joint venture of Mr. Patnaude's office."

Bill Patnaude directs the County Environmental Services Department, which already does do work on wetlands mitigation permits. The SWCD would be housed in his office, at the County Administration Building, saving overhead expenses.

One glitch, however, is that with the move, all current SWCD workers would be terminated but may apply for their jobs under county employment.

County Administrator Tony Murphy said that if the SWCD Board is in agreement, there would be a six-month transition period with the merged operations taking effect July 1, the start of the state fiscal year. During that time, current SWCD employees can decide if they want to apply to work for the county, or can move on.

"I don't want to grow county government," Murphy said. "But when we're called upon to do real projects with measureable outcomes, projects realized under a consolidated effort will save money. We'll all be working for the same objectives."

Under the proposal, the elected SWCD Board of Directors would remain an elected body, but would only serve as a advisory board to the County Board, Murphy said.

"Cass County has done the same, and asked its SWCD Board to be an adviser on clean water projects. As an advisory board, it will have more expertise than most county committees."

Under the complex proposal, Murphy said the Marshall-Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation Board will cede all its Beltrami County work to the Beltrami SWCD, and then become the Marshall SWCD. The expended Beltrami SWCD would then become a Beltrami County function.

"In a time of constrained budgets, where would the money come from to sustain the SWCD?" Commissioner Joe Vene asked, if the merger did not take place.

"If we do this well, we can reduce operating costs and expand our ability to do clean water projects," Murphy said. "Nobody wants SWCDs to die, but they must undergo change."

"In the past, there would be some on the (SWCD) board who would resist this," said Commissioner Jim Heltzer. "But there is no money for planning, just real projects. They need to buy into it."

SWCD's projected 2010 budget shows a $40,000 deficit.

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks, who sits on the Minnesota Water and Soil Resources Board, said BWSR would make available some state funding should the merger occur.

Since 1990, county support has averaged 12.5 percent of the annual SWCD budget. The county in 2003 eliminated that support, leading to a negotiated agreement through BSWR signed in 2005 that the county would provide administrative support.