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State Legacy funding is under scrutiny

Legacy funds to protect the state's environment are not earmarked to keep the state's water's free of Aquatic Invasive Species. Hubbard County has signed a resolution requesting that more funding be made available for outstate projects, rather than the seven county metro area. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Hubbard County board members unleashed a torrent of complaints Wednesday about Minnesota's Legacy Amendment and fund, contending it was a boondoggle that doesn't benefit rural counties while amassing unspent funds.

The angry discussion arose from an innocuous request for funding for a permanent watercraft inspector and clean water czar for Hubbard County.

This comes amid new squabbling over how Legacy funds are distributed and the revelation that zebra mussels have recently been found in yet another Otter Tail County body of water.

Hubbard County commissioners even signed off on a resolution Wednesday requesting a bigger share of the Legacy pie for parks and trails funding as part of an outstate campaign to divvy up the fund more equitably.

The genesis

It began when Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District director Mark Sommer came before the board to request funding for a proposed new position.

Sommer has been coordinating a new responsibility overseeing a dozen watercraft inspectors hired to stop the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species into county lakes.

But it is leaving him with little time to pursue other projects, so he proposed the new position in his office to oversee the watercraft inspectors and also to be a part-time clean water specialist.

This summer $85,000 was raised for watercraft inspections at high visibility and busy public access points in Hubbard County.

Of those funds, lake associations and COLA contributed 65 percent of the funds; townships chipped in 25 percent and the DNR contributed 10 percent.

"Where's the DNR in this?" outraged commissioner Lyle Robinson questioned. "They seem to be missing."

"If we wait for the DNR it might be too late," Sommer replied. And he pointed out the effects of tainted waters "will be felt in Park Rapids before it's felt in downtown St. Paul," referring to the Legislature.

The goal and the cost

In 2013, Sommer envisions expanding the Hubbard County SWCD inspection program to more lakes, hiring a full-time seasonal coordinator and implementing an official decontamination station in Hubbard County.

The rough cost to the county would be $35,000 plus benefits. The position "compliments what we do," Sommer said.

But Robinson was still ticked that the DNR made such a minimal contribution to the 2012 program.

Infested waters are "a state program and their contribution is 10 percent?" he asked. "This is an insult."

Several board members opined the state should be helping counties with these pervasive issues, since it's not realistic for counties to simply levy more to tackle the problem. And once the counties step up, the state backs off, Robinson said.

"The state can't move as fast as local government can," said commissioner Kathy Grell, whose district includes a high proportion of the county's lakes.

COLA member Ken Grob noted the DNR has doubled its spending on the AIS threat, from $4 million to $8 million. He said the DNR can only spend what the Legislature appropriates.

Enter the Legacy fund

That's when the ire turned to the Legacy funding.

Minnesota voters in 2008 approved the Legacy Amendment, a 3/8th of 1 percent sales tax increase to fund the arts, outdoors and environment.

The legislation specifically directed that state agencies not "backfill" their dwindling budgets with Legacy funds.

But as state waters began deteriorating and threats such as Asian carp and zebra mussels began to creep closer to the north country, outstate agencies began to question the disbursement of $40 million funds for parks. That spilled over into the fight against AIS.

Grob said the DNR estimates it could cost $50 million to $100 million to clean up the state's 10,000 lakes, funds it doesn't have.

But the Legacy funds aren't filling in the gap or even being used to clean up state-owned waters.

"Nothing has come for AIS except for the carp in Minneapolis," Grob said of funding the fight to keep lakes pristine.

Sommer said the Legacy funds are not earmarked for fighting AIS. "If they were, that'd be the first avenue we'd try," he said.

"The fund is growing left and right but no one knows how to access the funds," Robinson fumed.

The disbursements of Legacy funds have favored the seven-county metro area, which is exempt from a matching funding requirement and a capped limit of $500,000 that applies to rural projects.

With those hurdles, the Legacy fund is pretty much useless unless various lakes, as they have in Hubbard County, can obtain piecemeal grants for small projects.

Is it too late?

Robinson wonders if an inspection program can even plug the dike.

"Are we fooling ourselves by not having one (watercraft inspector) out there all time?" he questioned of the county's vulnerability to an after-hours infestation.

"We can't inspect this thing out forever," agreed COLA member Jeff Bjorkman, who is on the county's AIS task force.

But some reasoned that spending $35,000 to protect the county's "number one" resource and preserve property values, which are heavily dependent on clean lakes, was a pittance.

The board took the proposal under advisement.

"Our choice is to do nothing, which is a guaranteed disaster, or do what we can to reduce the risk," Grob said.

And as the zebra mussel threat continues creeping northward in Douglas, Otter Tail and Becker counties, other boards have had no choice but to spend money to combat it.

"I will do whatever I can to convince these guys it's a good thing," Grell said of the new position.

That didn't mollify the other board members.

"We're just bombarded with stuff the state won't pay for," board chair Dick Devine said.

"The DNR shouldn't run around spending $100 million on land (acquisitions) when they can't take care of the land they have," Robinson said.

The board agreed the region's state legislators should take up the fight, particularly the one to free up a slush fund that could be used to prevent AIS altogether.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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