State Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, planned to sit back and watch the discussion about the Judicial Ditch 2 sediment ponds at the Ed Pollard Community Center in Osakis Tuesday night, Nov. 19.
The Sauk River Watershed District held a public forum about the expensive cleanup of the sediment ponds that are designed to clean Lake Osakis. After a frustrated response to a comment from Osakis resident Chub Hensley from SRWD President Tyler Carlson, Franson decided to speak up.
In the room filled with roughly 150 people, Franson took the floor and called the SRWD board of directors “unelected bureaucrats.”
“I wasn’t going to speak today. I was just going to sit back and listen,” Franson said during the meeting. “I heard what Mr. Hensley had to say, and I thought it was really interesting. Then he was told what he had to say was not relevant. None of (the board of directors) are elected. You are unelected bureaucrats.”
After a rousing ovation from the audience, she continued to make her voice heard and speak on behalf of people from Osakis.
“You’re telling taxpayers what they are and aren’t allowed to talk about,” she told the board. “I have been to meetings, answered countless phone calls and emails, and people are not happy. They are hard-working individuals that feel like they are not being heard by, once again, unelected bureaucrats.”
Carlson responded by saying the individuals on the board were appointed and volunteered time to get to where they were. Franson gave up the floor with one final comment.
“This is taxation without representation,” she said.
In July of 2001, The SRWD began a water quality project for Lake Osakis, which included two sediment ponds along JD2 in Todd County on the west side of the lake. SRWD removed approximately 17,600 yards of sediment from the ponds this past winter.
During a SRWD meeting in 2018, the board passed a motion to assess the JD2 sedimentation pond costs at $650,000. This money pays for the removal of sediment from last winter, along with future maintenance and inspection costs.
In April of 2019, SRWD passed another motion that included an assessment over 10 years beginning in 2020 with an annual interest rate of 2.5 percent.
Some Osakis residents weren’t initially notified about the assessment because of a mailing error by the SRWD. On top of that, when mailing out the second notification letters, the SRWD miscalculated the evaluations for a handful of parcels. Some landowners were charged double of what they should’ve been.
The SRWD corrected its mistake, but the bill was raised slightly for the other Osakis residents – adding fuel to the fire on Tuesday night.
The board listened to comments and questions from Osakis residents for more than two hours. In most cases, they would give a short response, save the discussion for later, and move on to the next complaint.
One question that came up more than most was about abandoning the project altogether instead of paying for the SRWD to clean out the lake. In most cases, the SRWD administrator, Scott Henderson, answered the question with another question: Is the project working?
In an effort to keep sediment out of Lake Osakis, yes, the ponds are doing their job, according to Henderson. But many at the meeting said it’s not worth the costs to keep operating on the ponds.
By the end of the meeting, the SRWD tabled the discussion about abandoning the project and may consider it at a later date.
Before the crowd left for the night, they stayed for one more topic of discussion: the $1.9 million building the SRWD is moving into in 2020.
Henderson broke down why they needed a new building and why it needs to happen right now. Each year, the cost goes up by roughly 30 percent. Instead of paying $1.6 million in 2019, they are coughing up an extra $300,000 a year later.
To save money on construction and operating costs, the SRWD decided to pull the trigger, Henderson said. The SRWD needs a new building because it does not have the equipment or the lab to work in currently, he added.
Osakis taxpayers believe that the money that is being used for a new building should be used to pay off the JD2 assessment. The SRWD will continue with its new building plans.