Des Moines County Conservation Department feels bad amid budget talks

Somewhere in a shed is a broken down 2012 pickup truck belonging to Des Moines County.

The truck, which is owned by the county conservation department, has not been running for some time. The department wants to sell it and invest the product in new equipment. But, without the authorization of the Supervisory Board, this will not happen.

“Equipment wears out and wears out. When you can’t replace it, your maintenance costs go up, which puts a strain on your budget, ”conservation director Chris Lee told The Hawk Eye.

The conservation department rarely purchases new equipment, with no new purchases having been made in the past two years despite requests.

The department needs a skid steer loader. Lee said he would even buy a used skid steer loader, which would drastically lower the price while still giving the department what it needs.

Supervisor Tom Broeker said if it was as simple as an equal swap of one piece of equipment for another, there would be no problem. But often buying new equipment means spending taxpayer dollars, and this year there isn’t much for everyone.

Each year the costs of running the county increase, but this can often be offset by growth in property valuation, allowing the tax rate to stay the same. However, this year Des Moines County lost 1% of its taxable assessment, meaning if the county were to pass the same budget as last year, including all current salaries, it would be missing 1%.

However, supervisors cannot simply adopt the same budget. Salaries and insurance costs are rising, and without valuation increases to match those costs, supervisors will have to make tough choices about departmental budgets and tax rates this year.

Lee and Broeker both said it was easy to see what the priorities of residents of Des Moines County were. But they don’t agree on what those priorities are.

Lee argued that his department regularly receives money from unknown people in the form of estate donations. If the ministry organized a fundraiser, Lee believes he could easily raise tens of thousands of dollars.

However, Lee said that is the premise of the matter. Conservation is a county department, and he thinks the county should fund it.

“We will continue to do what we are doing. To hell with the budget, ”Lee said.

Broeker sees it differently. People want to feel safe, have good roads, and pay as little as possible for these things to happen. All of this costs money, and it is the county’s responsibility to make sure they are taken care of.

“The general basic fund also finances the auditor, the treasurer, the archivist… practically all the departments of the county. It funds practically all salaries except the back roads, ”Broeker said. “Most of the conservation spending comes from the basic general fund. “

The state sets this levy at a maximum of $ 3.50, and the county uses all of this to provide services. While the county can tax as much as it wants on the additional levy, the state limits what supervisors can put on this levy. Conservation is not one of those things.

Taxes come down to priorities, and Broeker said in some cases the state tells the county what those priorities will be. Infrastructure and security are at the top of the list for the State and for Supervisors.

To look forward

There is one source of funding that belongs to conservation: Big Hollow Recreation Area revenue.

Big Hollow is holding up, with a little extra for the department. The department has obtained state subsidies to carry out works, including on the watershed. The ministry once received a loan from supervisors of $ 250,000 and paid it back over five years to make improvements to the park.

But Broeker said the question is whether it’s fair for the county to use taxpayer dollars to fund improvements that aren’t absolutely necessary.

“I’m not particularly interested in using taxpayer money to create new facilities that taxpayers have to pay to operate,” he said.

Lee doesn’t want to build a new park. It would be an extremely expensive undertaking and would place a burden on taxpayers. But Lee figures Big Hollow could make even more money than it does now if more campsites could be added.

Throughout the season, the park is full and potential campers are turned away to head to another park in the county or to Geode Lake. By adding 10 non-bookable campsites, the county would generate $ 15,000 in additional revenue each year if campers only stayed for a weekend, and a potential of nearly $ 50,000 if the sites hosted a camper every night of the season. camping, according to Lee.

Non-bookable campsites filled during the week are not uncommon, especially during the summer holidays, where RVs typically show up two weeks early to ensure they receive a coveted campsite for the weekend.

“We are looking to the future. We do polls and interact with the public a lot, ”said Lee.

Staff and salaries are a concern for both parties

“This department has been on the board for 20 years saying we need more staff,” Lee said.

In recent years, supervisors have allowed Lee to hire an additional permanent part-time employee with a cap of 30 hours per week. The problem with hiring full-time staff is that it can add over $ 20,000 in additional benefit costs.

But Lee said the nature of part-time work means that one day these workers will leave for full-time jobs.

On paper, conservation staff receive a 4.5% raise each year, almost double what other non-union counterparts in Des Moines County receive. But Lee said it wasn’t a fair comparison. The Conservation Department’s salary scale works very differently from that of other county departments.

All county employees start at 80% of their base salary. Then, they make gradual increases that bring them to the 100% mark. For most county departments, it takes two years for employees to reach base salary, earning a 5% increase every six months.

However, Lee said his department has a stretched pay structure. Employees earn a 2% increase each year if they meet certain metrics. None of Lee’s staff have reached 100% of their base salary. This, on top of the 2.5% increase that non-unionized employees usually receive each year, is in addition to a 4.5% increase in wages.

The budget in figures

Lee said the Conservation Department’s budget had not increased. In fiscal 2015, the department budgeted $ 1.1 million and actually cost about $ 900,000. In fiscal year 21, the cost to taxpayers was less than $ 700,000. Since at least fiscal 2015, the department has not met the budget of $ 1.2 million it had that year.

Despite the cold and wet weather in the final months of fiscal 2019, the ministry only brought in $ 3,000 less than expected. This amount almost entirely explains the decrease in campground income due to the Skunk River flooding that year. The ministry also reduced its planned cost to the general fund by $ 10,000.

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