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Jay Backstrom, Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District Board chairman, asks Beltrami County commissioners recently for $25,000 to consolidate with the Marshall-Beltrami SWCD and to transition into the Beltrami County Environmental Services Department. The County Board gave $10,000 and asked Backstrom to return with a report before requesting the remaining $15,000. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Soil and Water Conservation District transition is a rocky road

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The Marshall-Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District is no more, and the Beltrami County SWCD finds itself traveling a rocky road to become a Beltrami County agency.

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While no formal agreement has been signed, the direction calls for the Beltrami SWCD to become part of the Beltrami County Environmental Services Department. It's a move that became necessary when the county stopped funding SWCD administration.

Jay Backstrom, Beltrami SWCD Board chairman, earlier this month asked Beltrami County commissioners for $25,000 to aid in the transition, but the commissioners only authorized $10,000 and told Backstrom to come back with a report on how it was spent in order to get more.

Strapped for cash, the SWCD Board laid off Chris Parthun, the long-time district manager.

"Financially, the Beltrami SWCD cannot continue to fill the position of district manager, and I was laid off earlier this month," Parthun said Tuesday in a statement. "While undesirable, the possibility for this action was anticipated since mid-2009. At this time, it is uncertain whether I will be returning, as many changes are on the horizon."

The decision by the Beltrami County Board to end administrative support -- because of state aid cuts to the county -- will see the closure of the SWCD that serves northwest Beltrami County and eastern Marshall County, plus downsize the Beltrami SWCD into the county environmental department, under Bill Patnaude.

"SWCDs do not possess tax-levying capacity, so revenue generation is extremely critical to day-to-day operations," Parthun said. "Historically, counties have been a significant financial partner to their SWCDs as the conservation work completed through the SWCD benefits the county's landowners and its resources."

Changing economic times have led counties to prioritize their financial support, affecting SWCDs, Parthun said.

"Beltrami County made the difficult decision to not financially support the Marshall-Beltrami SWCD and the Beltrami SWCD in 2010," he said. "This decision created dramatic and immediate repercussions. The Marshall-Beltrami SWCD is scheduled to close its doors the end of March, with its service area being consolidated into the Marshall SWCD and the Beltrami SWCD."

Backstrom told county commissioners on Feb. 16 that staff has been collecting files pertaining to Beltrami County from the Marshall-Beltrami SWCD office. In the end, the Marshall SWCD will retain the building and any outstanding liabilities, he said.

"Marshall SWCD will claim all liabilities and assets," Backstrom said. "The Marshall-Beltrami SWCD will be closing its door at the end of March, leaving 479 Beltrami County landowners without access to technical assistance through a local SWCD, and without elected representation to participate in working for a better future."

The Beltrami County SWCD will consolidate the 12 northwestern townships into its service area, he said, but the SWCD lacks the staff to ensure the consolidation's success.

He asked the Beltrami County Board for $25,000 from the county's Red Lake Game Funds to both foster the consolidation between SWCD and to move the Beltrami SWCD into the county, with a target date of July 1.

The County Board ended administrative support, which varied from $30,000 to $60,000 a year, but has funds available for specific SWCD projects. The county has also urged the SWCD to charge the public a fee for its technical assistance.

The Beltrami SWCD Board has understood the changing economic conditions for some time," Parthun said in his statement. "Grant funding support for the SWCD's aquatic biologist position ended in June, and despite the value of having an aquatic biologist in a water-rich county, the SWCD made the difficult decision to leave the SWCD's aquatic biologist position vacant effective June 30, 2009."

The position had been held by Dann Siems.

"Despite the 2009 SWCD staff reduction, the economic forecast for 2010 was still not fully understood," Parthun said. "Over the years, the Beltrami SWCD has been fairly successful in receiving grant funds for priority local projects, but three grant applications for 2010 work were not selected for funding. The negative results of this to the SWCD's 2010 budget was further impacted by the county's decision to not financially support the SWCD."

County and SWCD officials have been meeting since last fall to move the SWCD into the county, similar to a merger in Cass County.

"This effort appears to be making progress, with July 1, designated as a target date for completion," he said. "This type of county/SWCD cooperative effort will become increasingly more common. It is my sincerest hope that conservation work with private landowners will continue to remain a local and state priority."

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks made the motion to give the SWCD only $10,000, "and then come back and give a report for consideration of the rest."

"Our second important project is working to transition into your administration and Environmental Services Department," Backstrom said.

"There are no strings attached to the $10,000," Fairbanks said.

"Let's see what $10,000 brings and review that," said Commissioner Joe Vene.

The measure passed 4-0, with Commissioner Jim Lucachick abstaining.

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