A Brick Wall Ahead: The FY2011-2012 Outlook

A Message from Mike Thralls, Executive Director

image of Mike Thralls

As we enter a new fiscal year with a budget for districts and OCC significantly less than we had two years ago, it is useful to discuss the challenges we face.

We have managed to ride out the recent wave of budget cuts to date without impact to personnel through furloughs and reductions in force, other than leaving vacant positions unfilled. The primary source of that relief is the earnings OCC has generated by managing NRCS construction contracts including a number of projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). But those funds will run out.

If state collections remain at the current level or continue to decline, times could get tougher and the cuts will go deeper and the current “buffer” that ARRA funds are providing will be absent. Even if state collections improve, it will be difficult to replace all that has been lost. That is the “brick wall” in the road ahead for conservation districts and OCC if we are not careful. Aside from the dollars appropriated to make this year’s payment on the Conservation Bond, OCC and districts are operating with $1.5 million less of state appropriations than two years ago. In addition, an Interim Study currently in the Legislature, as well as statements by the gubernatorial candidates all, indicate a strong drive for smaller government.

Unless we make maximum use of our current “buffered” position to ready ourselves for a leaner, more efficient future, we will find those cuts to funding for programs and personnel forced upon us.

To help address our challenges, OCC created a Budget and Allocation Committee consisting of Conservation Commissioners George Stunkard and Mike Rooker; OACD President Trey Lam and Vice President Kim Farber; and OACDE Past President Bradley Hamilton. The committee is identifying ideas to help OCC and districts adjust to what lies ahead, and presented five recommendations to OCC at the July 2010 Commission meeting. The Commissioners approved all five of the following recommendations:

1. Make district allocations for six months, July through December, instead of 12 because of the possibility of rescissions and the uncertainty of contract management income during FY 2011.
2. Approve a six-month budget that reduces conservation district allocations by $216,801 and reduces OCC general revenue expenditures by $97,009.
3. As equipment manager positions become vacant, they will transition to non-benefitted positions. All other OCC and district positions that become vacant will be evaluated and adjusted if appropriate before refilling.
4. Develop a plan that offers an incentive for districts that decide to consolidate.
5. Develop a performance-based evaluation of districts to be used to guide future allocations to districts.

Of the recommendations, the last two will be the focus of the committee going forward — incentivize district consolidation and develop a performance-based evaluation to use for district allocations.

To date there has been a negative perception of district consolidation and few incentives encouraging it. For example, in a county with two or more conservation districts, a district may receive an allocation equal to that received by a district that covers the whole county. That is a disincentive for consolidation. The challenge is to provide incentives to encourage consolidation with the goal of having fewer, but stronger, more active and more efficient conservation districts.

The committee and OCC agree that a performance-based allocation of funds is lacking in the current system but will be vital to the future success and strength of the state’s conservation program. The most critical objectives for evaluation in the future are flood control programs, Farm Bill and state conservation programs delivery, and nonpoint source water quality protection.

We currently have the opportunity to make decisions to help shape our future as conservation districts and the Conservation Commission. If we do not act wisely and expediently, the decisions will be forced upon us because the funding simply will not be there.

The Budget and Allocation Committee and OCC welcome suggestions and ideas from the conservation community to help guide and inform the actions that must be taken. Ideas, suggestions or comments may be sent to me and I will forward them to committee members. Or you may contact committee members George Stunkard, Mike Rooker, Trey Lam, Kim Farber or Bradley Hamilton directly.

I remain confident that districts and OCC and our loyal NRCS partners will face and resolve this latest challenge successfully.