HC Commissioner’s watershed consolidation proposal met with mixed reviews

ity of Dayton are wary of the proposal.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson, District 7, is proposing to go from the current 11 separate watershed organizations in Hennepin County — including Elm Creek Watershed covering the cities of Dayton and Champlin — down to three watershed management organizations. Johnson said his proposal is based on a University of Minnesota study conducted in November 2011. The report on that study, he said, received broad support when it was first presented.

“Frankly, if I were to create my perfect water management system, it would look different from this proposed legislation, but since the U of M study seemed to have some momentum behind it, I thought it best to use that as the framework,” Johnson said.

Johnson acknowledges reactions to his proposal have been mixed.

“Many people are excited that we’re finally having this important discussion.  Others are not so thrilled. Change is always difficult,” Johnson said.

Leaders in both Champlin and Dayton are opposed to the currently proposed legislation.

 

PROPOSAL HIGHLIGHTS

In his draft proposal, Johnson wrote that four watershed districts and seven watershed management organizations are operating in the county. The watershed districts have managers appointed by county commissioners and have direct taxing authority. Watershed management organizations do not have direct taxing authority and are joint powers organizations of municipalities within the boundaries, and managers are appointed by city councils.

The proposal calls for the three consolidated watershed management organizations to each have direct taxing authority. The local area would be included in the Central Hennepin Watershed Management Organization, which would be made up of all of the territory in the Pioneer-Sarah Creek joint powers watershed management organization and the MCWD. There would also be the North Hennepin Watershed Management Organization, which would include all territory in the Elm Creek, Shingle Creek, Bassett Creek, West Mississippi and Middle Mississippi joint powers watershed management organizations, and the South Hennepin Watershed Management Organization, which would include all territory in the Riley-Purgatory-Bluff Creek, Nine Mile Creek and Lower Minnesota River Watershed Districts and the Richfield-Bloomington joint powers watershed management organization.

Johnson said the idea to consolidate the 11 existing organizations into three new ones came from the University of Minnesota study.

“I’m not wed to three as somehow the only correct number,” he said. “Certainly there are valid arguments that can be made for both fewer and more WMO’s [watershed management organizations] than three. The study, however, made a very strong recommendation for some level of consolidation based on hydrological boundaries and I believe that is a good recommendation.  Some level of consolidation will create efficiencies and certainly allow for better coordination between the vast number of water entities we currently have involved in decision-making under the current system in Hennepin County.”

Under the draft proposal, the board of managers governing the new watershed organizations would have to be elected officials from cities within the organization’s boundaries. Currently the county board appoints people to serve on the board of managers.

 

OPPOSITION

“Champlin is apprehensive about the propsed Hennepin County Governance legislation,” wrote former Mayor Mark Uglem (current State Representative for Dist. 36A), on behalf of Champlin City Council. “Creating larger government has never resulted in increased fiscal conservancy. I believe there are better ways to address the county’s concerns regarding watershed district capital projet spending.”

Uglem explained in the letter that he believed a county governance system would take away local influence on important projects affecting the community, along with a loss of financial control on much needed capital spending projects.

“It should be noted that eleven cities in our two Watershed Districts operate as joint power organizations where the cities allocate funding for the WMO annual operating budges and provide 75 percent of the approved captial project costs,” Uglem wrote. “Therefore, cities like Champlin can better assess project needs and appropriate budgets for the watershed operations.”

Doug Baines, a Dayton resident and the city’s representative on the Elm Creek Watershed, is another community member opposed to the current proposal.

“I believe the University of Minnesota’s study conducted November 2011 is flawed,” said Baines. “It does not consider the full funding mechanism that the watersheds receive.”

For example, the Elm Creek Watershed Management Commission operates as a joint powers organization. Each of the cities that are a part of it fund the commission’s annual operating budget.

 

As mentioned in the letter from Champlin, cities provide about 75 percent of the capital needed for a project. The watershed supplies the additional 25 percent.

“Very little funding has been acquired by Legacy funding or other sources of grant funds,” stated Baines.

Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) is another watershed district potentially affected by the proposal. MCWD Administrator Eric Evenson said he wasn’t sure what advantages actually might come out of the plan.

“I think we need to look at what problems this solves,” Evenson said of Johnson’s proposal. “I’m not sure what this really addresses.”

For example, he said he was unsure of the advantages of reducing the number of organizations. Some efficiencies with fewer organizations would be likely, but also costs would be associated with three large administrations instead of 11 smaller ones, Evenson said. Because the three new watershed organizations would be handling larger territories, there would likely be greater administrative needs, he said.

Johnson said cost savings were not the driving force behind his proposal, and he has not analyzed the issue.

“Common sense, however, suggests that three organizations versus 11 would bring some efficiency and administrative savings to the system,” he said.

Baines acknowledges there are a lot of agencies involved in the program.

“That could be an area that could be looked at but I do not think starting at the grass root organization is the way to find efficiency,” he said. Still, Baines’ main concern is with local control of locally raised funds.

“Larger governments who are remote and are not in the watershed area are typically quite uninvolved in what is happening in the watershed itself,” Baines said. “The cities in the watershed have a more boots on the ground approach. The city has a first hand knowledge of the problem and the necessary remedy. By keeping the dollars in the cities the efficiency is much higher then if a larger system that covers 1/3 of the county was at work.”

Dayton Mayor Tim McNeil is concerned that cities such as Dayton could become constant contributors who won’t see a return on their investment.

“There are no mechanisms in the proposal to ensure that some communities do not become perpetual donor cities by paying in tax revenue without seeing any projects that benefit their community,” he said.

Another significant concern for McNeil is the potential for pitting cities against one another to prevent growth based on water quality issues.

“It is highly possible that the most cost effective way of keeping water quality high (or prevent it from becoming more impaired) is to prevent development upstream.  It is highly possible, and in my opinion probable, that taxes raised in more urban communities will be spent in less urban communities to purchase open land and block development.”

He said that if those running a consolidated watershed felt that was likely to be the lowest cost option to prevent further negative impacts on the system as a whole, Commissioner Johnson’s current proposal doesn’t have anything to protect outer suburban cities from such a land grab occurring in their communities.

“In fact, I believe that this proposal, if it becomes law, would block many of the developments that the outer tier communities need to promote growth and job creation within their city boundaries,” said McNeil.

He did go on to say if these issues were addressed and some protections put in place,  he could potentially support such a revised proposal.

Medina City Councilor Elizabeth Weir echoed McNeil’s concerns. She fears a consolidation would lead to the interests of smaller, rural communities being pushed aside in favor of more urban areas. She said the proposal to combine the areas of the Pioneer-Sarah Creek joint powers watershed management organization and the MCWD could lead to a rural versus urban conflict.

“These two water management organizations are diametrically different,” Weir wrote. “MCWD is largely a developed watershed comprised of one large urban city and 28 sizable suburban cities within its boundaries. Pioneer-Sarah is a rural watershed with six small cities, all under 5,000 in population.”

Johnson agreed that managing the conflict between rural and urban interests was a concern.

“I think there is always a risk that the more heavily-populated/urban areas will receive more of the money, but that’s happening now,” he said. “I think this proposal would actually make that less of an issue as the entire county would be covered by a watershed organization with taxing authority.  Currently, many of the less-populated areas in Hennepin County are in water management organizations that don’t have levy authority and rely on contributions from small cities within the jurisdictions to operate. They tend to spend very little on water projects. The disparity under the current system is significant and I believe consolidation would actually lessen that.”

Weir also had concerns with the taxing authority as noted in the proposal. It leaves open the possibility of capping the amount of money that the new organizations could levy to a certain percentage of the total taxable market value of the territory of the watershed management organization.

“The unspecified cap on levy authorization will likely work against the cleaning up of impaired water bodies since projects to reduce loading are extremely expensive and a cap will effectively limit the money that is available for remediation,” Weir wrote.

“There are some in the legislature with concerns about how much some current watershed districts spend,” Johnson said. “Since this bill would create new entities with levy authority, I placed the cap in the draft in anticipation of a discussion of whether water management organizations should be subject to levy limits just as Minnesota cities and counties currently are.”

Johnson also said the proposed taxing authority was one reason why he also is proposing to only allow elected officials on the board of managers of the new organizations.

“If these organizations are to have the authority to levy taxes on their constituents, they should be elected by those same constituents, rather than appointed by some other body,” he said.

McNeil supports the idea of elected officials to provide for accountability. However, not everyone agrees with this concept either. MCWD’s Evenson believes it could limit the selection of who would run for a position.

“Bottom line: I brought this forward because many of us believe we can improve on our current system,” he said. “The current structure of water governance in Hennepin County includes at least six state agencies, 11 watershed organizations, 44 municipalities, several county-wide organizations and numerous lake associations. When managing our water, we sometimes fail to recognize it’s a system connected to other natural and human systems and our current water management structure could be more effective in protecting and improving water quality county wide.”

The full draft of Johnson’s proposal as well as the University of Minnesota study that it is based on are available on his page on the Hennepin County website. Go to www.co.hennepin.mn.us and click on the Government header on the top of the page, then click on County Board and on Johnson’s name.

 

Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at mindy.m@ecm-inc.com

 

(Editor’s Note: Amanda Schwarze contributed to this article.)

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