Watershed district costs criticized by Hegberg

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2012 - 5:25 PM

County commissioner who lost his bid for re-election says administrative costs of the districts are too high.

Dennis Hegberg

A departing County Board veteran took aim at watershed districts last week, alleging that excessive administrative costs are sucking budgets dry.

Dennis Hegberg, who lost his District 1 seat to Fran Miron after 23 years on the board, produced a chart that showed Washington County's seven watershed districts with administrative costs of $1.8 million this year. Their annual combined budgets this year total $20 million, he said.

"To me, that's excessive for the amount of work we get out of their projects," Hegberg said during the weekly County Board meeting. "We know that the lobbyists for the watersheds are strong and they don't want to consolidate, nor do the engineers or the legal."

No county money goes to watershed districts, which have taxing authority of their own, but the county board appoints watershed managers. Board members have been critical of duplicated administrative costs that include, in most districts, individual engineers and attorneys.

Watershed districts, established by state law, oversee conservation of water resources through land use, flood control, improvement of stream channels, wetlands reclamation, groundwater protection and other needs related to existing streams and lakes.

Hegberg said the county had 11 watershed districts when he joined the board but they later were consolidated into eight. Now, he said, he's reached the conclusion that they should be reduced to a single district under a single administration.

Consolidation would come at a price for smaller districts in particular, said Doug Thomas, administrator of Comfort Lake Forest Lake Watershed District.

"In the past when mergers have been proposed by the county they have been met with a lot of resistance from the local communities because they have felt as the watershed organization gets larger they lose representation and influence," Thomas said.

As his district's only employee, Thomas spends most of his time in the field handling permits, inspections and monitoring, and his administrative costs are below 10 percent of his annual budget, with the rest spent on water projects. Thomas said he understood Hegberg's position, but "to say we're not doing projects, well, the numbers don't bear that out."

Commissioner Gary Kriesel said he agreed with Hegberg that watershed districts need to find ways to reduce administrative costs. "We owe that to the taxpayers. This country's broke right now."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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