At their Nov. 10 work session, Hubbard County Board consensus was to reduce funding for the 2021 aquatic invasive species (AIS) program by $35,000.
They reached that conclusion after speaking with County Environmental Services Director Eric Buitenwerf.
“The purpose of this discussion is to decide, as a board, at what level we want to keep the budget contribution because the lake associations want to know what they need to contribute for inspection hours,” said board chair Char Christenson.
In 2016, the county created a rapid response fund for AIS treatment. The AIS advisory team decided to set a $20,000 spending threshold per year, Buitenwerf explained. “There were other criteria that they established to help in vetting requests for funding that we might receive and determine how we would go about rewarding dollars to those,” he said. “So far, it’s been negligible. Thankfully, it hasn’t been a big issue. We’ve had two lakes that requested $1,000 each that we’ve paid out.”
Buitenwerf said AIS rapid response funds are earmarked and tracked by the department internally, but are not separate from the overall AIS fund and budget.
Buitenwerf said the current balance is “$432,000 and change.”
Christenson reminded the board that $35,000 was contributed to the AIS fund out of levy dollars this year, but Buitenwerf removed that from the 2020 budget when all county departments were asked to reduce expenses by 20 percent due to the financial uncertainties of COVID-19.
At a recent Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Association meeting, AIS Coordinator Nick Macklem reported that the funding cut resulted in fewer inspection hours during the 2020 season. Inspection hours dropped from 15,744 last year to 13,200. While there were fewer hours, Macklem said the holidays, weekends and busiest times were prioritized at roughly 35 lake accesses.
Buitenwerf said he has reduced the 2021 AIS budget by the same amount. Christenson said lake associations are asking the county to put the $35,000 back.
“In light of us trying to have a zero percent levy increase, would you say that, even if we had an emergency, we could take $35,000 out of the general fund if we absolutely have to? It looks to me like we could let this go for another year without the $35,000 per year contribution, would you agree with that?” Christenson asked Buitenwerf.
County commissioner David De La Hunt asked if inspection hours needed to be kept at previous levels.
Buitenwerf said the county is “at the saturation point, as far as weekends are all covered on the primary lakes. Each year, we do a few lakes that we haven’t done or haven’t done in awhile just to see if there’s a need. More often than not, with those lakes it proves the traffic isn’t there enough to justify coverage there.”
The decreased inspection hours did not produce any ill effects, he continued. “We’ve been, over the years, trying to work with some of the larger lakes that continue to throw money toward us to say, ‘We very much appreciate that, but you’re exceeding the point of diminishing returns, and do you really see the value for $21 bucks an hour? Are you getting a good return?’ Some are taking that to heart, others continue to want 24-7 inspectors thinking that’s going to be the be-all-end-all to keeping their lakes clean.”
Buitenwerf said the AIS program is intended to be “outreach, positive interaction, not a police operation to catch everything that possibly might enter a lake. That’s not reasonable.”
By shifting more inspections to the weekends, De La Hunt said it appeared to catch more violations.
“Midweek, it’s pretty much crickets,” Buitenwerf said, so it doesn’t make sense to have an inspector work an eight- or 10-hour shift.
He speculated that, if the county continues its 20 percent budget reduction for AIS, lake associations will increase their annual contributions and offset the difference. “That could become an issue,” he said.
De La Hunt said he sees a need for a second decontamination station – more so than additional inspection hours.
Buitenwerf said, “That has its own set of considerations.” One variable, he said, is whether there will be enough certified staff to operate a second station.
De La Hunt noted that, if a need for more inspections are needed, “there’s nothing precluding you from doing that.”
“We can make adjustments mid-year,” replied Buitenwerf.