Beltrami County commissioners agree to SWCD pact
Beltrami County and the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District merged last week, after commissioners approved a cooperative agreement.
While not being labeled as a merger, the cooperative agreement essentially leaves the SWCD Board as a free-standing entity of elected officials, but transfers all its work to Beltrami County.
The lone exception is Jerry Stensing, who will continue as the SWCD's only employee but housed in the county's Natural Resource Management Department. He will continue in his role as stewardship forester, working with private forestry plans and tree sales to the public.
"It is a merger of common direction and priorities," said County Administrator Tony Murphy. "The goal is to put our resources goals first."
Taxpayers should see $370,000 in annual savings with the move, Murphy said, with the SWCD moving its offices from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Building on north Bemidji Avenue to the County Administration Building.
Former SWCD functions will be housed under Environmental Services Director Bill Patnaude, with commissioners on Tuesday night authorizing Patnaude to fill a resource specialist position and hire for a new position of water specialist.
The vote was 4-1 both for the cooperative agreement and to hire the two positions to complete the agreement. Commissioner Jim Lucachick opposed both moves, but did not comment on either.
In an April 6 work session when commissioners went over the agreement, Lucachick alluded that the move would grow Beltrami County government and add staff at a time when the county is under extreme budgetary pressure.
Commissioner Jim Heltzer cited that with the agreement, he hoped that work on the state-mandated Comprehensive Water Management Plan continues, that Stensing's function continues and that a liaison panel prescribed in the agreement meets regularly to discuss any glitches between the county and SWCD.
Murphy assured him that all functions would continue, and that the SWCD Board has certain statutory provisions it must do, the Comprehensive Water Management Plan among them.
According to the agreement, the liaison committee -- resource conservation committee -- consists of two members of the County Board and two members of the SWCD Board. Non-voting advisory members are the county administrator and Environmental Services Department director.
The panel will meet "for purposes of program and policy review," states the cooperative agreement. At least annually, prior to June 1 each year, the panel will meet "for the purpose of reviewing the effectiveness of (the cooperative agreement), discussing budgets and making recommendations to their respective boards to the desirability of continuing the agreement."
Under the agreement, the elected SWCD Board will remain a free-standing entity, but it will serve in an advisory capacity to the Beltrami County Board on a number of issues, from water policy to planning and zoning to forest management.
It will also carry out responsibilities enumerated to SWCDs by state law, present education programs and serve as a non-voting member on the County Planning Commission and Board of Adjustment.
The county will add a water specialist in the Environmental Services Department to do water quality projects, erosion control and bank stabilization, and services to private landowners. The position will be funded through grants and fees collected.
The department will have two resource specialists, one serving the west county area and the other the east. They will work with the Wetland Conservation Act, public health violations and field studies, investigations and actions.
The agreement also states that the county cannot hire a new Environmental Services Department director without consultation with the SWCD Board. It can offer advice and input to the County Board, which has final authority on hiring for the post when it becomes vacant.
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.