Guest Column: November vote will give public input on water efforts

Gary Pestorious is a member of the Shell Rock River Watershed Board of Managers.

Albert Lea: The Shell Rock River Watershed was created in 2003 with a clear mission: to implement reasonable and necessary improvements to the water-related and other natural resources of the district. We have one job — clean water — and we perform it with passion and focus.

In that regard, we are fortunate that we do not suffer from mission drift like other public organizations. The public has given us direction, and we deliver. We are now facing another opportunity to receive public input and direction — how to pay for our efforts.

On Nov. 8, the residents of the city of Albert Lea will be asked to vote yes or no on extending the half percent sales tax for another 15 years up to $15 million.  The district cannot encourage anyone to vote for or against the sales tax renewal. Instead, we provide you with the information needed to make an informed decision. For the district, the vote is a statement of direction on how we should pay for our mission — through the continuation of the sales tax or using other funding methods.

The Albert Lea Lakes Foundation is permitted to provide promotional efforts regarding the sales tax alongside its public outreach. This is one reason you see more outreach from the Lakes Foundation than the actual watershed. The organization has invited us to participate in a series of informational sessions, and hopefully you have taken the chance to participate and learn more.

Of the 45 watershed districts in Minnesota, the Shell Rock is the only watershed utilizing a sales tax for project funding.  Other watersheds use a combination of property tax or project levies for funding specific projects. And of course, we all use bonding and apply for grants if projects qualify. 

In September 2005, the watershed was in a similar timeline situation as we find ourselves in today. We were facing funding needs, and in preparation we proposed two property tax levies. For us to levy property taxes we had to present a budget in September and apply for the tax levies. Just like the city or county, we had until Dec. 15 to either reduce or rescind these levies.

Last time, legislative approval was given in the spring and the vote was the final piece taking place in the fall. Once the vote passed, the SRRWD was immediately able to rescind the two then-proposed property tax levies prior to the Dec. 15 deadline.

While the timing of this renewal vote is different, the final outcome will be the same.  Unfortunately, we will not be looking for legislative approval until the spring. This leaves the district in a situation where our existing sales tax revenue may very well run out before the renewed sales tax can take effect. Regardless of people’s comments to the opposite, this is the reason the SRRWD thought the public vote should wait until the Legislature approved the sales tax renewal. 

So this year, in order to ensure a funding source, the SRRWD applied for a property tax levy in September for $1 million. This proposed levy is to fund the gap between the timing of the vote and the timing of legislative approval and to prepare for the possibility that the vote may not pass. Under the current timeline, there will not be an opportunity to fully rescind the levy by the Dec. 15 date (we will still be awaiting legislative approval). Speaking as one member of the board, I do believe that a yes vote on Nov. 8 will allow us to roll back the proposed levy.

The SRRWD has worked for 13 years to clean up the water and stop sediment from entering our lakes, as well as replacing the outlet of the watershed, the Albert Lea Lake Dam. We have installed fish barriers on all lakes above Fountain Lake.  We will be installing a new dam on Pickerel Lake in 2017, along with many other projects. 

The confined disposal facility is scheduled to be built, and next summer we will start to dredge Fountain Lake. The Fountain Lake restoration will be $15 million by itself. So, we believe the public understands the importance of a funding source. 

All of the lakes, rivers and streams in this watershed are listed as impaired by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.  One way or another they will be cleaned up.

The SRRWD has been awarded many grants in the last 10 years, totaling over $26 million. Grants are monies we don’t have to pay back. They are hard to get — qualifications must be met and then we must compete with many other projects to be chosen as the best use for that money. 

The SRRWD has a great staff and has been on a fast pace to clean up this watershed. They are extremely aggressive when compared to others. We know many of you think we should have been dredging sooner and that we are moving too slow. Remember, it took 200 years to pollute these lakes and streams. It is a massive undertaking to clean them up. Know this — we are working as fast as possible. 

We would like to clarify the vote issue on the November ballot. The vote will be for or against extending the half-percent sales tax for another 15 years ($5 per $1,000 on certain items). This funding source worked well for the past 13 years. Without it, the SRRWD will still exist and will continue on with our mission; however, there is only one other primary choice left for funding at that point and that is property tax. One way or the other these lakes and streams will be cleaned up. 

© 2015 Shell Rock River Watershed District, 305 S 1st Avenue, Albert Lea, MN 56007