Watershed to request $2M loan from county

Published 10:42 am Thursday, March 9, 2017

Shell Rock River Watershed District officials are requesting a $2 million loan from Freeborn County to begin the bidding process to dredge Fountain Lake.

The district’s Board of Managers on Tuesday approved submitting a written request to Freeborn County for assistance.

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners could address the request March 21.

Brett Behnke

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The loan would provide funding security for the first phase of the project that will remove 550,000 to 690,000 cubic yards of sediment from Edgewater Bay, said Watershed District consultant Mariah Lynne.

In a letter requesting the county’s support for the project dated Feb. 28, Watershed District Administrator Brett Behnke wrote of the need for collaboration between local entities for dredging to take place.

“As the municipality that appoints our Board of Managers, Freeborn County plays an integral role in the direction and success of our efforts,” he said. “The fact that the lakes, streams, ditches and natural resources that are under the purview of the SRRWD are 100 percent within Freeborn County solidifies the need for us to continue our collaborative efforts.”

According to Behnke, the district plans to pay off the loan either with its levy authority as defined by state statutes or with the sales tax funds.

The district is requesting the sales tax be extended for either 15 years or until $15 million has been collected and is awaiting legislative approval.

Watershed officials plan to request a $103,000 property tax levy this year after their request for a $146,000 project tax levy and $50,000 survey data acquisition fund levy for water monitoring efforts was not approved last year by Freeborn County Auditor-Treasurer Pat Martinson based on legal concerns.

Officials claimed the property tax levy was needed because of a gap in expected sales tax revenue when the current sales tax expires around September and when the tax could be renewed.

The decrease in the levy request was due to a decline in the district’s estimated market value, Behnke said.

According to Behnke, the levy will not be contested this year based on conversations he has had in meetings with Freeborn County counsel.

“It’s a commonly-used approach to levying project dollars throughout the state,” he said.

Board of Managers Vice Chairman Gary Pestorious expressed support for the district’s request.

“This project is a big project, and it’s sitting right in the middle of town,” he said. “We think that it’s important that it’s everybody. It’s the city, it’s the county, it’s the watershed, it’s the state of Minnesota. It’s going to benefit everybody, and everybody needs to get involved.”

The CDF is expected to be ready to house sediment in August, Behnke said. Officials hope dredging begins this summer.

The Board of Managers discussed how the district has spent money on needed upstream work since its inception.

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners will discuss the district’s request Tuesday during a study session. Administrator John Kluever said there is no pending board action pertaining to the request.

Behnke said he is confident the county will approve the loan request.

“Once the county understands it completely and understands that the money is coming from the sales tax — the debt service levy, where that’s coming from — I believe that they will be a valued partner, just as they have been throughout this process,” he said.

District 2 Commissioner Dan Belshan criticized the district’s financial management.

“I’m not ready to bail out the Watershed District’s financial woes, shown by fiscal ineptitude in the past,” he said. “It appears we have the proverbial tail wagging the dog.”

Commissioners Glen Mathiason, Chris Shoff, Mike Lee and Jim Nelson declined to comment pending Tuesday’s study session.

When dredging takes place, there will be a mixture of water and sediment pumped to a confined disposal facility that will be used to store sediment taken from the bottom of Fountain Lake. The CDF will be used to settle and siphon off the water. An embankment will go around the perimeter of the CDF, and it is expected to hold about 1.2 million cubic yards of sediment.

According to Lynne, a significant portion of the district funds for project completion are generated from the local option sales tax. The district has leveraged $14 million in sales tax dollars and received $21.9 million in outside funds, Lynne said.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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