WACD Continues to Advocate for Special Districts
Editor’s Note: Shaun Sims presented these remarks during the opening General Session during the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) Annual Convention on Nov. 15.
Welcome to the 71st annual convention of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts.
Today, I want to focus my comments on what I believe are the highest priority issues we are facing, and in keeping with the theme, the importance of conservation district elected officials performing their duties with the utmost attention to transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility.
As you know, the Legislature, in this last session, passed a bill creating a Special District Task Force. That Task Force includes two Senators, two House members and Gubernatorial-appointed representatives of the County Clerks, Secretary of State office, County Commissioners, Tax Payers Association, Minerals industry representative and three special district representatives which included myself, Josh Shorb of the Weed & Pest and Mark Pepper of the Improvement and Service districts. This Task Force began meeting in June and met a total five times. I attended and represented districts with elected boards at all five meetings.
The Task Force has advanced several legislative proposals to the Joint Corporations Committee. The Committee took these up on Nov. 21-22.
I want to take this opportunity to share the WACD Board of Directors, view on the legislation. The Board has been in constant discussions on the proposals. We have had ongoing communications and have provided direction in representing WACD member interests.
First, before I get into the legislation, some background. There are 28 types of special districts authorized in state statute. These special districts range from fire districts, museums, cemetery and conservation, as well as joint powers boards and a number of others. There are, based on information provided by the Department of Audit, 671 total districts as of last count. There are approximately 2,350 citizens in our communities that serve on special district boards providing an array of services such as watershed protection, weed management and fire services.
We do not believe that additional dissolution mechanisms are necessary. I do not, as a Task Force member, believe that the testimony we heard and the information we were provided, combined with my personal knowledge, having worked with and served on a number of special district board’s in my own county, warrants these additional authorities.
Further, the WACD Board and I question whether initiating a dissolution process is the appropriate response to a special district that may have failed to hit some of the steps required throughout the myriad of statutes that apply to districts. Those of us who have been through the district supervisor training and the district manager certification process know there is a pretty extensive list of requirements. Jumping from a district failed to file a report or some paperwork to a fairly involved dissolution process that includes us, as the special districts developing findings of fact and a dissolution plan within 30 days of a County Commission triggering the process, just doesn’t make sense to me.
And what happens to the services and projects should a special district be dissolved? I can tell you personally I still need my water delivered, water development to occur, fires to be fought and our deceased to be buried.
We recognize that there are some what appear to be isolated issues with special districts in their compliance and governance. We absolutely agree these should be addressed. We believe there are adequate statutory mechanisms in place to do so. These districts were formed for a reason.
The WACD has consistently reiterated that training will solve most all of the potential issues occurring. If training doesn’t address the issue, we believe there a number of statutes on the books, that if enforced, would. The importance of the training cannot be reiterated, and WACD has been participating in a workgroup formed by the Task Force to help develop a statewide special district training program forward. We remain committed to that effort. To help this effort, we opened this week’s training up to any special district board member that was interested. We added to ability to participate via videoconference, so folks didn’t have to travel.
We had a special district training on Nov. 17. This was done in a large part to provide our new supervisors, or those who haven’t yet participated in training, the opportunity to do so, given the potential new requirement that is included in one of the other bills being advanced by the Task Force, the budget requirement bill.
Generally, the WACD Board does not have significant concerns with the bill. Most of it is existing statute or actions. Districts were already taking such as developing reserve policies. What will be new is the discretionary authority of the County Commissioners to require a district to present your budget in what essentially will be a pre-budget hearing, to the commissioners and also demonstrate that they are conducting open meetings and have received training. This is the one provision that causes the Board concern. We question the appropriateness of requiring elected board members to demonstrate training when, one, it is not a condition of holding the position, two, are we requiring training of all elected officials and three, given there is not currently a consistent statewide special district training program it is premature.
But again, we remain committed to helping see a statewide training program get put in place. Our Executive Director Bobbie Frank will continue to dedicate a portion of her time to helping with this effort to see it to completion.
I personally believe that one of the most efficient forms of government is the special districts. Over $1.2 million annually in this state is donated in the form of the time local district supervisors and the other special district board members, contribute to providing needed services. And this is likely a gross underestimation of time.
Lastly, the Task Force at their last meeting in October voted to recommend to the Joint Corporations that the Task Force be continued into the coming year. There was a list of topics the Task Force suggested be the focus of their work. The list is extensive.
Are special districts perfect? Absolutely not. Sometimes local districts can be a bit challenging, but its grassroots, self-governance at the most local level. That is this organizations mission, local grassroots self-governance.