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Money from constitutional amendment getting around, but not the message

Legacy Funds are getting distributed through the state as intended for clean water, habitat improvement, parks and trails and preserving the arts and our cultural heritage, according to a recent, independent analysis completed for Conservation Minnesota. About 33 percent of the proceeds are directed for clean water efforts. A sunny day proved ideal for a pontoon boat ride on Lake Andrew in this file photo from last summer. Tribune file photo

WILLMAR -- The funds are getting out there, but not always the message.

Legacy funds generated by the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2008 are being distributed to projects throughout the state, very much as intended, according to a recently released report by Conservation Minnesota and the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

An independent analysis for Legacy investments for fiscal year 2010 showed that $211 million was provided to projects across the state, without any apparent slant towards one region over another, according to Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota. He was joined by Sheila Smith, director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, and Cheri Buzzeo, manager of Willmar's Barn Theatre, in a visit to Willmar on Feb. 11 to bring the message that Legacy funds are working.

The wide distribution of the funds is evidenced by the fact that 74 percent of the monies were awarded through statewide grant programs, they pointed out.

Despite this, they said many people in the state are still not aware of how Legacy funds in the state are being put to work. A state web site that was supposed to provide easy access to the information is not yet fully functional, and it requires efforts like the recent independent analysis to put the numbers out there, Austin explained.

Take your pick if you're looking to see how west central Minnesota benefits. If you've walked on public grasslands in the last year -- whether toting a shotgun or binoculars -- you've almost certainly benefited by Legacy funding. The report identified a wide variety of projects to restore and preserve grasslands in Kandiyohi and neighboring counties with Legacy funds in the past and coming years.

Projects to benefit parks, such as the Kornois Regional Park, and others to monitor and improve water quality in lakes around Willmar, are all part of a very long list of projects in this area receiving support from Legacy funding.

If you've taken in a show at the Barn Theatre, you have reason to appreciate the funding as well.

Legacy funds have helped the local, non-profit theatre do more, according to Buzzeo, its manager.

"We can dream big," said Buzzeo when asked what the Legacy Funding has meant. The availability of Legacy funds has made it possible for the local community theatre to pursue goals it would otherwise have not considered.

Importantly, she said the Barn Theatre has used the Legacy funds to make possible more community involvement in productions.

Voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment by an over-whelming majority. It dedicates .375 percent increase in the sales tax to 6.87 percent. It will continue for 25 years.

The revenue is divided among four funds:

- 33 percent for clean water

- 33 percent for habitat (as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council)

- 14.25 percent for parks and trails

- 19.75 percent for arts, history and cultural preservation

The constitutional amendment requires that the funds "supplement traditional sources of funding" in these areas. Austin said that Conservation Minnesota is playing a watchdog role to see that the funds are being used as intended, and not to fill holes in the budget.

It's also trying to let people know that the Legacy Amendment has a very big job ahead of it if Minnesota is to protect our natural resources. Well before the recession struck, Minnesota had been reducing the funding allocated for conservation. The report found that conservation budgets had fallen from 2.17 percent of general fund spending in 2000 to just one percent by 2006.

The Legacy funds, said Austin, will only "get us back to the level where we were in 2001."

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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