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Residents hear about watershed district disbandment proposal

MERRIFIELD--About 40 people showed up at the Lake Edward Town Hall Tuesday night to learn more about a proposal to disband the Thirty Lakes Watershed District.

A resident addresses the Thirty Lakes Watershed District Board of Managers Tuesday night at Lake Edward Town Hall. The board hosted a meeting to discuss its proposal to disband the special taxing district. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch
A resident addresses the Thirty Lakes Watershed District Board of Managers Tuesday night at Lake Edward Town Hall. The board hosted a meeting to discuss its proposal to disband the special taxing district. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

MERRIFIELD-About 40 people showed up at the Lake Edward Town Hall Tuesday night to learn more about a proposal to disband the Thirty Lakes Watershed District.

The district covers about 70 square miles, including portions of Breezy Point, Nisswa, Unorganized Territory and Lake Edward, Center, Pelican and Mission townships. Originally established in 1971 to address lake water quality concerns and other issues related to lake health, the watershed district has authority to tax residents living within it to support those efforts. Following a report to evaluate the district's purpose, however, district managers are recommending it be disbanded. The report concludes several other agencies are completing the work for which the taxing district was initially established, including Crow Wing County, the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Tony Bauer, district board of managers president, described it as a "situation of redundancy," noting the types of projects the watershed district can contribute funds to are dwindling.

"This is one of those rare, unique opportunities where we're not asking anyone to give anything up," Bauer said. "It's a rare and unique opportunity where you have a say in lowering your own taxes."

Although the district has taxing authority, it has not levied taxes from property owners since 2013. Bauer said this was because the district no longer had projects on which to spend the money. A balance of about $200,000 remains unspent in the district's account. The recommendation of the board is to turn the money over to a dedicated fund managed by Crow Wing County, which would be spent only on water quality testing on lakes within the district.

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Bauer said this would be enough to cover testing for about 20 years.

Darrel Palmer, secretary of the board, said an analysis of the use of funds over time showed water quality testing was an area where the bulk of the tax dollars were spent.

"It was a really important thing to previous boards, and we wanted to be consistent in that moving forward," Palmer said.

To move ahead with a disbandment of the district, the managers were required to conduct a gap analysis and create a 10-year plan for ensuring the purposes of the watershed district continue to be fulfilled. Bauer said the 10-year plan has received support from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, which would take the next steps in the disbandment process should the district managers acquire enough petition signatures supporting the move.

Chris Pence, Crow Wing County Land Services supervisor, is an advisory member of the watershed district. Pence said state law requires 25 percent of resident property owners to sign a petition to dissolve a watershed district. This does not include seasonal residents. With 3,200 full-time permanent residents, 800 signatures are required. Bauer said prior to Tuesday's meeting, more than 600 signatures were collected so far.

If enough signatures are collected, the petition is sent to BWSR, which then hosts a public hearing and takes public comments.

A few residents who spoke up during the meeting shared support of the district board's plan. One resident said some in the community had supported eliminating the district for more than 30 years.

Dale Armstrong, a former district manager, disagreed with the proposal. He said he was skeptical of the DNR's ability to complete the work the watershed district had long engaged in.

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"There's nobody that I'm aware of that takes care of the lakes like Thirty Lakes used to take care of the lakes," Armstrong said. "I know a lot of people didn't like us, but by the time we were done with them, they could see the point."

Armstrong suggested the current managers were not fulfilling their duties for what amounted to a small amount of taxes for individual property owners. According to a chart prepared by the watershed district, a property owner of a homestead property with a taxable market value of $250,000 would pay an estimated $32 annually.

Bauer disputed the characterization, noting they've requested to spend funds on certain projects but were denied the ability to do so, since the DNR was already completing the work.

Another resident of the district, Roland Nelson, asked about the possibility of using the funds remaining in the district's account to offset the costs of maintaining Ditch 13. Ditch 13 is one of 14 drainage ditches built more than a century ago in the county. In 2015, the county board approved a new tax to pay for maintenance of the ditch in an effort to follow state drainage law, which requires the county to maintain ditches but bars the use of general fund dollars to do so.

Bauer said that same state law also bars the use of watershed district funds to go toward ditch maintenance.

"We cannot legally put a nickel into the maintenance or use of those ditches," Bauer said.

He added although the watershed district might have used resources toward the maintenance of Ditch 13 in the past, this was not necessarily a legal use.

One resident asked how the agreement with the county would be enforced to ensure the funds were used for water quality testing.

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Palmer said the dollars would go into a dedicated fund and criteria would be set for how it could be spent. But, he added, if the watershed district remained intact, theoretically the managers could choose not to spend money on water quality testing, instead saying "we're going to do sand castles next year."

Pence noted a watershed district in the metro area recently levied property owners within it to fund a building, despite not owning any land.

Bauer said an agreement with the county would outlive the association and the disbandment process was just beginning.

"We still have to work out that language," Bauer said.

In attendance at Tuesday's meeting were Crow Wing County commissioners Rosemary Franzen and Paul Thiede. Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, also attended. Heintzeman served on the watershed district board of managers prior to his time as a legislator. He noted he appreciated the board giving the public an opportunity to weigh in.

"When you have a situation like this, where there appears to be a duplicative service on numerous angles, I'm glad that this particular board is taking that very seriously and taking it to the public," Heintzeman said.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Related Topics: MERRIFIELDCROW WING COUNTY
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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