Conservation districts seek funding
In response to budget crises from the federal level, four conservation districts in Wyoming are seeking to establish mill levies within their areas on this fall’s ballots, while two others are seeking to renew in November.
“Those budget crises trickle down and ultimately affect the local entities that depend on those sources,” says Sheridan County Conservation District Manager Carrie Rogaczewski of federal funding. “We decided the time was right to get moving and to stabilize our local funding.”
Sheridan County Conservation District, Cody Conservation District, Crook County Natural Resource District and Hot Springs Conservation District are those seeking a mill levy. Laramie County Conservation District and Niobrara Conservation District will bring a mill levy renewal to their constituents.
Rogaczewski says without the assurances of local funding they’ll have a hard time keeping help and keeping the program viable, a sentiment echoed by other districts around the state that are both with and without mill levies.
Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director Bobbie Frank says local funding is irreplaceable for districts. “The local funding is what grounds the districts with their local constituents and it gives them the flexibility to be involved in a broader scope of projects,” she states.
Eighty-eight percent of the Sheridan County district’s funding currently comes from outside sources. “With the outside funding it’s hard to be accountable and flexible enough to address local issues as they come up. It weakens the program because you’re not basing projects on local resource needs but on the grants’ requirements,” says Rogaczewski.
“Grants are a great tool, but they can come with their own set of restrictions or requirements,” she adds.
Currently the Sheridan district receives grants from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality through the Clean Water Act and the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. Partnerships with the Natural Resources Conservation District have ceased due to budget cuts within that federal agency.
Rogaczewski says last year the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust awarded her district a grant, while the Game and Fish Department provided funding for fish passage projects. Wyoming State Forestry has supported the living snow fence program.
“We have a local membership program that generates $2,500 each year, and the County Commission gives us some funding. We also receive some small appropriations from a few towns in the area,” she says.
Small amounts of funding from so many different sources means the district has to get creative, says Rogaczewski. “One of the downsides is personnel stability. It’s hard to pay people competitively and encourage them to stay here when our funding is up in the air,” she adds.
“Districts that operate on minimal state funding whatever grants they can obtain find it very difficult to operate,” says Frank. “Those districts do their best but they don’t have the base resources to cover their operational costs.”
The Laramie County Conservation District’s District Manager Jim Cochran says his county’s mill levy, in place since 1988, has been the funding base for operations within the district. “Without it we don’t have matches for grants, and every grant we have requires matching funds,” he says.
In 2008 the Laramie County district’s budget was composed of 55 percent mill levy money and 45 percent funding from grants and contracts.
Rogaczewski says her district is “trying to be optimistic” about the upcoming vote. “The response we’ve had through visiting with local organizations and groups has been positive. We’re receiving a lot of support,” she says. Right now her biggest concern is reaching enough people.
“It’s important for the local people to know how important they are to conservation districts,” she continues. “The amount of resource issues we’re asked to address doesn’t get any smaller just because our budget does.”
“I think once the taxpayers are aware and informed and understand what the mill levy is for there’s generally a lot of local support,” says Frank, but she adds it’s hard to get the word out on minimal funds and volunteer hours.
The Sheridan County district is asking for up to half a mill, which would generate $300,000. That amount could be used to leverage an additional $750,000 through matching grants.
The tax in Sheridan County would cost the average homeowner only $12 per year. In Laramie County the mill levy costs $7.50 per year for the average homeowner. “That small amount makes a lot of difference in what we’re doing with natural resources,” says Cochran.
“The amount it costs compared to the benefit it could generate is quite different,” says Rogaczewski. “We’ve been trying to hit that point home.”
“For those districts that do not have mill levies, receiving even a minimal amount of base funding from the local level would make all the difference in the world,” says Frank.
Cochran says his district never takes anything for granted, so they’re also getting the word out about their renewal.
“The biggest thing for us is to have the flexibility to address local resource issues and have accountability to local people rather than outside sources,” notes Rogaczewski.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.