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Minnesota River Board to disband

Ron Antony, chairman of the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners, said the board was concerned about losing local control and sending tax dollars out of the county. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

OLIVIA — Nearly 20 years after a citizens advisory committee urged that a basin-wide board lead efforts to clean up the Minnesota River, the board that took on that role is disbanding.

The remaining 18 dues-paying counties comprising the Minnesota River Board voted 11 to 6, with one abstaining, to disband by April the entity that has represented 37 counties in the Minnesota River basin.

The vote on Monday morning in Olivia came with a recommendation only that the state look at creating a new entity with a stable funding source to replace it. The recommendation provided no specifics, and by the action to disband the board, it may not have a voice in the development of a successor.

While he felt that it was the right decision to disband, Harlan Madsen, Kandiyohi County commissioner, described the action as “very, very painful.” Madsen had been active with the board since its start in 1995. He emphasized that the role of working to improve water quality remained as critical as ever.

The Minnesota River Board is comprised of county commissioners appointed by the member counties. The original Minnesota River Citizens’ Advisory Committee appointed by then-Gov. Arne Carlson had urged that a more diverse board — a “Minnesota River Commission” — be created, with involvement by citizens, soil and water conservation districts, and non-governmental agencies to oversee basin-wide cleanup efforts. The Minnesota River Board was established in law in 1995 and given that responsibility.

The member counties were asked Monday whether they wanted to establish a new entity with a dedicated funding source, or disband. While the funding source was not specified, it was proposed that each county apportion some tax revenue toward the operation of a multi-county board.

John Schueller, board chairman and a Redwood County commissioner, told the members that they were looking at a model based on the Red River Basin Commission, which has taxing authority. The funding allows it take on large-scale projects and, importantly, leverage additional state and federal funds toward those projects.

In contrast, the Minnesota River Board has relied from its start on appropriations by the state and the membership dues of participating counties. Membership in the Minnesota River Board fell from 36 dues-paying members originally — 36 of the 37 counties contributed — to 18 today. State appropriations have declined and now ended.

Shannon Fisher, executive director, said the Minnesota River Board accomplished good projects for the basin with the limited resources it had. Its funding allowed his position to be only part time. It was made possible through a partnership with the Water Resource Center at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he is also employed.

He told board members going into Monday’s vote that the state is moving toward a one-watershed approach.

Board members heard testimony from all sides of the issue before taking the vote. Opposition to the possibility of taxing their constituents for a basin-wide entity, and a feared loss of local control, were major themes.

“What I see here is a grab game to increase our property taxes,” said Kent Bosch, a farmer and drainage contractor northeast of Montevideo.

Individual counties are best able to oversee their own water-quality efforts, said others. “We’re not afraid to fund local projects,” said Bruce Kubicek, a Steele County commissioner.

Drew Campbell, a member of the River Board’s executive board, said the lack of stable funding hindered the ability to take on the larger-scale projects that are needed to address water quality issues in the basin. He was among those who said a basin-wide entity could do more than counties can do on their own.

There were 98 participants at the meeting who cast ballots in a straw vote prior to the official action. It showed a similar interest toward disbanding, with 72 favoring either of two options to disband, and 26 votes split between two options to create a new entity with a dedicated funding source.

Tom Cherveny

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

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