What started as a routine adoption of the Palo Alto County Budget for fiscal year 2013-14 turned into a surprise for one county department Tuesday morning, March 12. On a 3-1 roll call vote, with Board Chair Ron Graettinger absent from the meeting, the Supervisors cut an additional $15,000 from the budget of the Palo Alto County Conservation Board for the coming year.
Tuesday's action wasn't the first cut to the Conservation Board budget in this year's county budgeting process, however, In talks during February, the supervisors voted a $10,000 cut to the budget amount on a split vote, but only after a motion for a cut of $100,000 had failed.
Supervisor Jerry Hofstad started the conversation. "I would move to reduce the conservation board budget by $15,000 more, for a total of $25,000 the reason being I do not think that they need to have weapons; I don't think they need to be running around the county scouting out poachers and working for the DNR I don't believe we should be paying anybody for doing that and that's the reason I want to cut the budget."
"I don't agree with you," said Supervisor Linus Solberg.
"So why are you disagreeing?" asked Supervisor Ed Noonan, who was serving a the Board Chair Pro-Tem in Graettinger's absence.
"Because we already decided on all this here," Solberg answered. "But, everything you're saying is true."
"We spend $225,000 more than Emmet County," Noonan pointed out. "I've asked what we provide for that extra funding that they don't provide, but not gotten an answer. I have also asked if we went to four full-time employees instead of five, what programs they'd have to cut no answer, so I assume if I don't get answers, the answers to the questions must be that there's not a lot of difference and there wouldn't be a lot of cuts, or they'd tell me."
Supervisor Keith Wirtz wondered how many grants the Conservation Board received from the Gaming Board grants, and learned that they had received a couple of grants.
Noonan asked two other county department heads what would change in their offices if they were asked to cut an employee, and if they were asked that question, if they would answer it.
"Some service would have to go," answered Treasurer Mary Hilfiker, who started listing what services in her office would be affected.
"At least you'd answer it," Noonan said.
"Absolutely," Hifiker replied.
"So if Emmet County was spending one third of what you spent, and I asked you why you were spending three times what Emmet County is spending, would you go up to Emmet to see what we're providing that they're not providing, wouldn't you try to get an answer to me?" Noonan asked the Treasurer.
"I would go and do a comparative," Hilfiker answered.
"So why does Conservation feel like they don't have to answer these questions?" Noonan asked.
"I feel that their job is to take care of the parks they've got," Hofstad said. "To build fish stations, to do things that make it convenient for people to camp or whatever. I just don't think its their job to be out wandering around in the middle of the night at two o' clock in the morning in a river bayou with a gun pointed at somebody, hoping they can find somebody to arrest. That's about what it amounts to."
"Is it our decision to take their guns away from them or is it their board's decision?" Solberg asked.
"It's their board's decision," Hofstad answered.
"But, we also told them not to send one of their employees to officer's school and they did it anyway, so they must have had $7.500 extra dollars that year," Noonan said.
"Well, seeing as how I was the one who suggested a $25,000 cut to their budget to start with, I'll second it," Wirtz said.
Noonan called the roll for the vote. Hofstad and Wirtz voted aye, while Solberg cast a no vote. Noonan then voted aye, making the final vote 3-1 with Graettinger absent and not voting.
"Is it legal for us to do this?" Solberg asked.
"Yes it is, we checked," Hofstad said.
"It might be legal, but I don't think that it's going to make very good working relationships with the Conservation Board," observed Auditor Carmen Moser.
"I would really like to meet with their board and not argue," Solberg said. "If we could meet sometime, talk some, civilly, and see where they're going and see if they could get rid of some of this"
"I'd would agree," Wirtz said. "We should have been doing that six months ago, then maybe things would have turned out better on this."