Proposal is latest in long lake-improvement saga

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Who can manage and raise funds for Albert Lea and Fountain Lake the best? The idea of a Lake Improvement District (LID) would bring the issue discussed in past years back to the forefront.

The LID could be a third path for lake management, over which the county and a group advocating an independent watershed district have been fighting since 1999.

&uot;The LID does not take away the county’s control on lake management and is furnished with a solid funding mechanism,&uot; said Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea. &uot;It is an alternative funding source that does not intend to preclude any project by other authorities.&uot;

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The inaction on water improvement urged frustrated citizens to file a petition for establishing the Shell Rock River Watershed District, which detaches the water management function from the county. The state would appoint a watershed board to make decisions about the lakes.

The county fought back and obtained an abeyance agreement from the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources (BWSR) to come up with a comprehensive water plan and begin implementing five priorities by February 2003. If the state agency found the county’s commitment was insufficient, it would authorize the watershed district.

For Albert Lea Lake, the county board adopted recommendations from a special committee. The plan includes partial dredging, installation of a new dam, and a six-inch drawdown in the winter.

The cost of the project and funding methods were not specified in the plan. But it is forecasted that the county might need at least a few million dollars just to match grants from federal and state governments.

The county has been counting on a half-percent local option sales tax, proposed last year to pay for lakes and downtown projects, but there is no guarantee that the proposal will pass the state legislature and mandated referendum. Even if the sales tax won public support, the earliest implementation would be 2004. If there is no sales tax, the county would have to allocate from its own funds collected through a countywide property tax.

This came to Dorman’s attention. He thinks the LID would ease the financial burden of the county for the lake, and can supplement the implementation of projects with the county. And it is more equitable because the expense would be assessed to residents in a narrower area, who are expected to receive the benefits from the projects directly.

Another advantage of LID, Dorman said, is that the organization would be under the control of county board.

&uot;It adds more accountability to what the LID will do,&uot; Dorman said. Unlike the watershed district, which is completely free from county control, residents outside the LID maintain their influence on lake management issues through county commissioners, he pointed out.

&uot;The Lake Improvement District is formed under the approval of the county, and each year the budget has to be reviewed and approved by the county board. They can actually deny the budget, or disband the Lake Improvement District. So, there is more control,&uot; said Russ Schultz, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Lake Management Supervisor.

&uot;Once a watershed district is formed, it answers to the state-level government, not the county,&uot; he added. &uot;So, it is a little harder to manage. If the people decide they don’t want the watershed district, it’s very difficult to disband one.&uot;

Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce President Randy Kehr regards lake improvement is one of the most pressing issues the community has to deal with, particularly now with the possibility of large waterfront redevelopment on the Farmland site.

&uot;I believe in order to make the Farmland site redevelopment, whether it’s a hotel, recreational facility or whatever, we need the lake to be on the way to be ready for it,&uot; Kehr said. &uot;We can’t try to attract a hotel company or big recreation center without a nice lake. We need to be able to tie them together.&uot;

The chamber endorsed the idea of bringing the sales tax to a public vote, without taking a position on the proposal itself. Kehr said the organization is interested in any new idea to fund the lake and promised to study the LID option.