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Jefferson County soil, water district faces financial trouble

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The Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District is broke, and to keep the lights on through the end of March it will have to adopt the same risky fiscal strategy that got it into trouble in the first place.

Former Executive Director Brian J. Wohnsiedler borrowed money against future state grants to pay operating costs, which members of the district’s board of directors said occurred without their knowledge or consent. He resigned Feb. 4.

Mr. Wohnsiedler said he did nothing wrong, adding that “using available resources has always been a practice.”

Legislator Michael W. Behling, R-Adams, who is also a board of directors member, said no criminal action is suspected but Mr. Wohnsiedler has lost the board’s faith and decided to step aside.

The district’s agronomist, Christine M. Watkins, was appointed the interim executive director at the board meeting Monday night. She and her staff put together a budget outlining their financial position.

The district, an independent state-mandated agency created by the county, has budgeted $386,236.00 in expenses for 2013. More than half of its revenue, $195,840, comes from the county. The rest comes from state grants and a small amount of earned income. Its mission is to help farmers comply with Department of Environmental Conservation regulations.

The county’s trails coordinator and forestry service, which draw an additional $95,000 and $93,263 from the county, respectively, fall under the soil district, which has a staff of six.

The county pays its share of the district’s budget quarterly. Mrs. Watkins said the district would have trouble paying employees by mid-March.

It is projecting a deficit of $10,000 for the year. The forestry service is projecting a deficit of nearly $17,000.

The state has frozen all grant contributions to the district until it gets a budget in place, conducts an audit and finds out how it got into the compromised position, according to Robert D. Brower, an associate environmental analyst in the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

After approving the budget provided by Mrs. Watkins and her colleagues, the board voted Monday to spend $7,800 to hire Crowley and Halloran CPAs, 215 Washington St., to conduct an independent audit.

In the meantime, to keep the district operating, board members debated selling assets. Mr. Brower cautioned against doing so, saying he did not want to see the district get rid of anything it could not get back, as much of the equipment it owns is tied to state grant money.

Board members also considered cutting per diem and travel money for directors to reduce costs, but postponed a decision to a later meeting.

A forestry employee, Leonard N. Tibbetts, was laid off last year because of budget constraints.

In the end, the board voted to temporarily use up to $25,000 from the trails budget, which has already received two quarters worth of funding to tide the struggling district over until the next county payment comes through and the audit is completed, freeing up state money.

Mr. Behling, who raised a motion to use the trail funds, said, “It certainly was always going to be done anyway and we weren’t going to know it.”

Jason D. Bast, a board member, said: “I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t like it but I don’t have a problem with it because I don’t see any other option.”

Using the trail funds means the board will adopt the same policy that led to the former executive director’s resignation.

The practice of borrowing money against state grants, while not acceptable under state environmental board regulations, is not unheard of, according to Legislator John D. Peck, R-Great Bend, also a district board member.

However, increases in workers’ compensation and pension payments and a faltering economy over the last four years have made that practice unsustainable, Mr. Peck said.

For his part, Mr. Wohnsiedler is not bitter. Attributing his decision to resign from the district after 12 years to “professional and personal reasons,” he said he had “an excellent tenure at the district” and is not concerned about the audit. He said diminishing resources and the state and federal fiscal situation made managing the district’s projects increasingly difficult. He plans to stay in the area and work on his farm for a few months before looking for jobs in the private sector.

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