The public tumult surrounding the Sauk River Watershed District's assessments to Osakis citizens for the Judicial Ditch 2 sediment ponds reached an all-time high last Wednesday, Jan. 15 at the Ed Pollard Community Center.
Nearly 300 people gathered for an open forum held by four state representatives, including Alexandria's Mary Franson. The meeting gave Osakis taxpayers a chance to voice their displeasure while giving the legislators a better understanding of what they can do about assessments in the future.
Josh Heintzeman has been a legislator in Nisswa since 2014. Before that, he served as a watershed district manager in Crow Wing County.
"We had reached a point where our watershed district had outreached its usefulness," Heintzeman said to the crowd. "I understand the process and how the organization works. I also understand when there's a point where maybe there needs to be a change, or there's a duplication of government, there may be an argument to roll that back."
Over the course of 19 months, Heintzeman saw his watershed district dissolve. In the last six years, Crow Wing County has continued its water-quality testing. Heintzeman said that in most local lakes, the water quality has improved.
Heintzeman discussed what it takes to get rid of a watershed district. It takes 25% of landowners in the area the watershed district covers to sign a petition.
"I can tell you in my own experience that you don't just take a piece of paper out of your car and start sending it around," he said. "We had an attorney prepare a document so that it was done correctly. I can't speak for what's going to happen here, but we had watershed district managers that recognized the end of our usefulness."
Heintzman also mentioned a scenario from the 1990s. A community got 25%, but the document did not have the language in accordance with the chapters in the statue, and it was thrown out.
One citizen asked if there could be an executive order to abolish the SRWD, but Franson quickly shot it down.
"Our governor does have executive order privilege," she said. "However, his priorities are a little different than the ones in this room are. It does not hurt to reach out to him and communicate."
A Facebook group called "Citizens for the Dissolution of the Watershed District" has more than 1,300 members. Paul Hartmann of Osakis has been one of the vocal leaders in the group. On Wednesday night, he spoke in front of the crowd and pointed out that the SRWD can levy up to $860,000. He believes that's too much.
He asked the group of representatives if they can repeal the current levy amount down to $250,000. Franson said they could introduce the legislation, but with the mixed makeup of Minnesota's House of Representatives, she can't guarantee the levy will be lowered.
"The house is very metro-centric. There is not an environmental program they do not love," Franson said. "Many of the times the wishes of us rural legislators are scoffed at, but we do everything that we can to continue the conversation. If a bill does get introduced, each one of you has a voice. If you don't have access to an email, you have access to a telephone. We would like you to contact our offices."
One woman in attendance spoke up and asked why the people in Osakis don't get a vote when it comes to approving SRWD projects. She said that when a school district needs money or wants to construct a new building, they have to seek a referendum, and the taxpayers get a vote. In this situation, not only do people in Osakis not get a say, but unelected people are in charge of assessing them, she said.
Heintzeman addressed her concerns by saying that when schools go through a voting process for funding, they don't have the money, whereas the SRWD has the money, and they are levying the assessments handed out. He also noted that levying power is extremely valuable to the SRWD.
Franson also spoke passionately about the SRWD meeting venue in its office in Sauk Centre. Over the last three months, they have encouraged people from Osakis to attend their monthly meetings to ask questions and voice concerns. However, the conference room seats only a handful of people.
During the December meeting, Franson said she attended but sat outside listening through a window with other Osakis citizens in the cold due to lack of seating. Several members of the SRWD board were in attendance at the Jan. 15 meeting in Osakis. Administrator Scott Henderson said they would change the location of meetings in the future.
The legislators told the public that abolishing the SRWD won't be an easy task, and will be one that takes time. Legislators after the meeting spoke with members of the crowd individually about what they can do to make their voices heard. They encourage taxpayers to contact them with any information or comments about JD2 and the SRWD.