Funding for your local soil and water conservation district office and staff depends each year on what your state and county officials decide to allocate.
In some parts of the state, that makes it difficult for local staffs to plan long term for projects and staffing, unless they have access to other funds such as grants. Yet, year in and year out, local SWCD staffs roll with revenue given and budget to cover state-mandated programs as well as their own conservation initiatives.
To help establish a dedicated funding source, Gov. Tim Walz in his 2020-21Biennial Budget recommended that Minnesota’s soil and water conservation districts be granted local property tax levy authority.
Specifically, the governor proposed SWCD levy authority with a cap at .048% of the estimated market value of property or $1 million, whichever is less. State officials estimate SWCDs would levy about $26.4 million in calendar year 2020, $26.4 million in calendar year 2021 and $34.1 million in calendar year 2022.
While grateful for the proposed local levy, leadership of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts is concerned that the governor’s budget did not include any ongoing general fund investment. MASWCD leaders say both sources of revenue are needed — state and local.
Over the past four years, the Legislature approved $11 million per year coming from the Clean Water Fund known as SWCD Capacity Funding. That allowed for the hiring of more than 110 SWCD staff state-wide, in part to help landowners comply with the state’s new buffer law. MASWCD maintains that Clean Water Funds were not intended as a long-term funding source for SWCDs and that funding should come from the state’s general fund.
MASWCD officials say the amount needs to increase to $14 million per year to cover the increasing demands on SWCD staff, such as assisting landowners who no longer have federal conservation staff available to work on projects. They have estimated funding needs at $28 million per year. The remaining funds would come from local sources as proposed in a local SWCD statutory funding authority.
In a Feb. 25 letter to the governor from MASWCD president Roland Cleveland, Chisago SWCD supervisor, and Paul Krabbenhoft, MASWCD vice president and Class SWCD supervisor, the men noted:
“[SWCDs] are the only locally elected boards currently without authority to raise our own revenue and are dependent on county board for local funding. Over time, this has resulted in a patchwork of funding from counties and has severely limited the capacity of some SWCDs to best serve their communities and to meet their ever-growing statutory and programmatic obligations. We greatly appreciate SWCD levy authority being included in your budget proposal… However, SWCD levy authority should not be considered a substitute for state funding… Funding for SWCDS needs to be a share state and local commitment. Funding for SWCDs should not rest entirely on the property tax system.”
LeAnn Buck, MASWCD executive director, said local SWCD funding from county governments ranges from covering only office rent to allocating $1 million per year. The median district county allocation is $90,000 per year, she added.
Proposed funding options
MASWCD leaders have worked with several lawmakers, including state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance committee, and Rep. John Persell, DFL- Bemidji, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy committee, to offer two proposals for SWCD funding.
The proposals are:
• State SWCD capacity funding from the general fund, providing $14 million per year; $28 million per biennium (SF1712/HF1624).
• Local SWCD statutory funding authority that provides three options for local SWCDs to raise revenue either with a property tax levy, a soil and water management fee or by maintaining the status quo allocation from the county (SF1443/HF1284).
Last week, one House and two Senate committees heard the bills. The House committee referred the levy request to the Ways and Means committee. It has yet to hear MASWCD’s general fund request. The Senate committee referred the levy request to the Senate tax committee. The first committee deadline for the House and Senate is March 15, meaning that proposed bills must be heard by that date and action must be taken to move them forward in order to be considered the current legislative session.