It isn't often that one major government entity turns to another and says, "Remind me again why you even exist."

But it's happening this summer.

Tired of what it sees as hundreds of thousands of dollars going to waste, Scott County is suggesting to the agency that oversees the lower Minnesota River that there's little point in its sticking around.

"Their administrative costs are huge," said County Administrator Gary Shelton. "Almost half their budget goes to administration rather than doing things."

Scott County taxpayers cover nearly 40 percent of the tax dollars that go to the Lower Minnesota River Watershed District, or about $200,000 a year, Scott officials say.

And for all that gets accomplished, adds Paul Nelson, the county's point man on natural resources, "you may as well just dissolve them and give their pieces to other watersheds."

He added, in a recent workshop with county commissioners: "They perceive all their problems coming from upstream, which they have no control over, which paralyzes them" -- at a time of rising pressure for a river cleanup.

The county's restiveness on this point has been evident for some time now. But there's a new focus: a governance study commissioned by the watershed district.

The report, carried out by two graduate students at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, is not flattering. After speaking to a number of people with a stake in the district's work, such as businesses and other government agencies, authors Rylee Main and Brandon Helm concluded:

"Stakeholders perceived [the district] as somewhat inefficient, as neglecting to fully realize opportunities for cost-sharing and other partnerships, and as not providing strong leadership and advocacy for the Lower Minnesota River."

The students also stressed that they really didn't have the time, nor were they given the scope, to do the job that needed to be done.

Scott County is stressing that as well. Staffers in Shakopee are hinting that basically the study was constructed without truly asking the fundamental questions that ought to have been asked. They key in on this comment by the authors, deep into the long report:

"A financial analysis of the management options was outside of the scope of this study. A thorough investigation into the costs associated with each is an integral part of choosing the best option."

Watershed officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Dredging up dirt

The district's main job is to work with the federal government to maintain a shipping channel. Its part of the deal is to figure out what to do with the end result of dredging to keep the channel deep enough -- finding sites for the sediment to be dumped on, and uses for it.

The agency has other roles, but the case for shutting down the district is that these can be parceled out to others.

Someone would still have to deal with dredging. Scott's preference is to create a port authority that would also take on the role of economic development, in the same way that St. Paul's port authority has for years, for instance.

That would coincide with Scott County's heightened interest in economic development as a way of creating more jobs south of the river.

"A lot of port authorities do little with their ports," said Deputy County Administrator Lezlie Vermillion, "and more on the economic development side, which fits with our interest in that."

The fear, of course, is another layer of bureaucracy.

"Wouldn't the cost to residents go up?" asked County Commissioner Jon Ulrich.

"If you create a new entity and keep the old one," Shelton said. "We're suggesting the county not support creating the new and keeping the old, but rather disbanding the current entity. The levy would go to the port authority -- or maybe go away."

Added Nelson: "Other watersheds could operate more efficiently with less overhead, and balance or even reduce the levy."

The receiving end

There's also a structural issue with the district, Scott officials say. It only covers a narrow band on either side of the river, meaning its territory is on the receiving end of the real problems.

Said commissioner Dave Menden, "It makes more sense to prevent things from getting to the river than letting it get there and then cleaning it up."

That could imply a shift of resources to other entities, at a time when the state is bearing down on those along the river to do a better job de-polluting it.

The agitation comes at a time when there's legislative interest in the proliferation of tiny and perhaps inefficient watershed districts, Nelson said. There's talk of combining them, "though less so in the metro area, for fear of all the battles that would cause."

The University of Minnesota speaks of public advocacy for the river as the prime argument to keep the agency. But the Scott officials say that in reality a host of outfits can do that, including nonprofits and the public Minnesota River Board, whose purpose is "to provide leadership, build partnerships and support efforts to improve and protect water quality."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285