Driving County Roads

An on line journal sharing my views. The content reflects my background as a rural person employed in agriculture and as a retired elected official of local government.

Monday, February 18, 2008


The legislature has been in session for less than a week and they already have a feather in their cap. An amendment to the Constitution of the State of Minnesota will appear on the ballot in November. The amendment will ask the voters if they want to increase the state’s sales tax by 3/8 of 1% and dedicate it to the outdoors, preservation of natural resources, clean water, and the arts.

This idea has been discussed at the capital for a number of years. As a county commissioner I am well aware that at the local level, county government is charged with management of water resources. Nicollet County has a number of programs in place to deal with water quality issues. We have a county water plan, we are involved in a clean water partnership, we have three septic loan programs, and we are a member of the Minnesota River Board that coordinates activities in the Minnesota River Basin Watershed with explicit goals of improving water quality. I have attended more meetings than I care to remember with the topic of discussion being the problems and roadblocks that are “out there” to prevent us from having a pristine river and lakes and streams free of algae and sediment. We usually talk for hours and the answer always comes back to the point that there is just not enough money to accomplish the tasks. These are important issues. EVERYONE wants clean water. When we come to developing answers to questions such as: how clean does it need to be? Who and what level of government should pay? Should individuals be responsible for paying? How do we spend the money effectively? There appears to be a reluctance to pay for the cost involved so everyone can have clean water.

What if there was a mythical “Perfect County” that was doing everything right? In “Perfect County” all of the individual sewage treatment systems up to snuff. Perfect County has buffer strips on every mile of drainage ditch and on every field that is next to the bluff line. Every feedlot contains all run off and every intensive livestock operation is applying manure at agronomic rates. The Soil and Water Conservation District has installed blind tile inlets in every field. And all of the cities of this mythical county have sewage treatment plants that do not pollute. Rain gardens abound at every business that provides a parking lot with impervious surfaces or has large buildings that mean increased run-off after large rain events. In this mythical county, all homeowners are fined if they deposit grass clippings in the street and (horrors!) dump oil down the street drain. This mythical county would be rated EXCELLENT in abiding by the state statutes that charge counties with management of their water.

There is no “Perfect County”. If it existed, we would still have a polluted Minnesota River because the geographic area of the basin includes parts or all of 37 counties. The key to improving water quality is getting counties to work together and to do it on a watershed basis. Up to now, the approach has been to use a carrot and not a stick. To encourage counties to become like the one described above, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Board of Soil and Water Conservation, and other agencies have offered incentives in the form of grants to those counties who see needs and want some help to do the job on the local level. The grant money is taxpayer dollars allocated by the legislature to the various agencies. The agencies then funnel the money to the local level or manage the grants. The key here is that the legislature must ALLOCATE the dollars and the funding bills must receive a signature by the governor, not the veto pen.

What is wrong with this picture? Much good work has been done to improve our water quality. But many Minnesota citizens want to see more work done and they want to see it done faster. In some areas, economic growth has suffered. In order to do the work faster, there needs to be an infusion of more dollars. This can be done with the constitutional amendment or it can be done the “old fashioned way”. The old fashioned way is that the citizens make it known to their elected representatives that they want their taxes increased so the money can be used for these programs. Then these causes get an honest and open debate during the budgeting sessions and they compete head on with other important issues facing the state, like education, transportation, health care, and human services.

Allowing certain special interests to get dedicated funding (this is forever unless another amendment is passed to reverse it) through the constitution is usurping the authority and power of the legislature. Furthermore, it lets our present governor off the hook in regard to putting his money where his mouth is. If he truly supports these programs, then he needs to sign bills that fund them. If these are important quality of life issues, and I believe they are; then voters need to hold the people in power accountable or toss them out of office. I believe in the power of the electorate. I believe that the citizens will elect representatives who make choices on behalf of the voters and if it means raising taxes to fund important programs, so be it.

ADDENDUM. If the amendment passes, boards or commissions made up of stakeholders representing natural resources and the arts will be appointed to evaluate, prioritize, and delegate where the funds should be expended. This is another layer of government that would not be needed if the funding came the old fashioned way. end


Bruce Kimmel of Springsted Incorporated of St. Paul appeared at our recent board meeting, to present the results of a bond issue by the county. The county board had decided to issue bonds to finance the road construction work on County State Aid Road 5 and the bond money would also be used to finance a drainage improvement project for county ditch #29. (This is money that is used by the landowners on the ditch to do the improvement and then the entire cost of the project plus expenses and interest paid by the county is repaid to the ditch system account by the private landowners on that ditch system.)
Bruce Kimmel brought the county board good news on two fronts. In the process of the bond issuance, Moody’s had looked at the financial basis of Nicollet County and raised our bond rating from A2 toA1. Mr. Kimmel explained that the higher rating came about because of the county’s well-managed financial program and our steady and increase residential and agriculture tax capacity growth. He explained that this rating is about as high as we can expect for a county our size.
The next part of the good news that Mr. Kimmel shared was that this rating was made known to the bidders on the bonds. "This rating probably helped the county by at least five basis points and as a result, the county tax payers will see a cost savings (interest costs) of between $40,000 to $75,000 on this bond issuance." The price of the bond issuance was $7,829,601.65 and the interest cost is $2,548,312,10. The true interest rate the county is paying is 3.4363%. end