Farmers quell ditch program move

Published 9:07 am Wednesday, April 13, 2011

County board keeps ditch, weed programs with SWCD after heavy opposition to change

The county board was applauded Tuesday for standing pat.

Area farmers got their wish to keep the county’s ditch and weed programs with the Soil Water and Conservation District rather than switching it to the Mower County Highway Department, which maintained the programs until it switched to the SWCD in 1997.

“It’s good to look at, but I know I can’t support bringing it back to the highway department,” Commissioner Ray Tucker said.

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The county personnel committee recommended the move as a minor cost savings and as a way to consolidate more services within the highway department.

After vocal opposition, the idea died after no other commissioner seconded a motion by Mike Ankeny. If the move had been approved, the budget savings would have been seen in the highway department budget, Ankeny said.

Local farmers filled the county board room in opposition to the move, which county officials described as strictly a budget issue.

John Bramwell noted the county doesn’t own the ditches, but it is tasked with maintaining about 37,500 acres of ditches and about $170,000 of fund balance that is used to offset costs like administrative fees.

He said regular maintenance is a must to keep ditches operating properly.

“If ditches aren’t taken care of, the productivity goes down dramatically. The value goes down dramatically,” he said.

“I don’t think you should use the money from the ditch system … to balance the highway department’s budget,” Bramwell continued. “Find it someplace else.”

Jim Gebhardt, chairman of the SWCD board of supervisors, expressed concern about whether drainage would be a focus for the highway department or would they just focus on roads.

“With us, the drainage program is a priority,” Gebhardt said.

He said the the SWCD knows the ditches and what is needed to maintain them.

“It takes time to learn these ditches,” he said.

Gebhardt said SWCD employees walk and inspect the 27 miles of ditches twice a year to find any potential problems. He said the SWCD can also help farmers find other avenues of funding.

“We’re a one-stop shop program for funding,” Gebhardt said.

Gebhardt said the cut would have had an adverse effect on the SWCD budget.

Farmer Raymond Cerise encouraged the board to stay with the SWCD, noting the highway department didn’t have a strong track record maintaining the ditches prior to 1997.

“They (the SWCD) would be much more proactive,” Cerise said. “I think the problem with the county highway department is they would be much more reactive.”

He said the highway department didn’t do enough, and so larger issues would arise and have to be addressed at a greater cost.

“Let the people that know about drainage manage the drainage system,” he said.

County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said discussion about moving the work to the highway department wasn’t due to the SWCD work, it was about money.

“It’s simply about the budget,” Oscarson said.

While County Engineer Mike Hanson — a former ditch inspector — assured that he and his office would have been able to shoulder the extra work, Peter Tangren and the other farmers in attendance urged for the work to stay put.

“It’s nothing against Mr. Hanson or the Highway Department,” he said. “I just don’t he has the expertise or the time or the manpower to do the job the Soil and Water Conservation District does.”