SWCDs: It’s all about local priorities

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Probably one of the most insightful things I’ve ever heard is a quote by the French writer and philosopher Voltaire: “When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.”

The quote seemed appropriate to mention since Ohio’s 88 soil and water conservation districts receive funding through tax dollars. If you are like me, you want to know exactly what your taxes are paying for and how you and your family can benefit.

History of funding

Ohio’s conservation districts were funded on a local level after state legislation was passed in 1951 permitting county commissioners to appropriate funds to conservation districts.

Counties that introduced districts were interested in keeping control of the districts by contributing to their operational budget. Like anything else, you tend to try to keep the people happy who provide your paycheck. The same thing goes here. Thus, each district could be locally led with local dollars.

State’s role

Then, in 1960, legislation was introduced to provide state match funding for all conservation districts. The record indicates that the state appropriated $125,000 that year.

The state match gave a higher priority to conducting conservation on a larger scale. It gave the Ohio Department on Natural Resources the ability to assess just how much conservation was being completely by these locally led groups throughout the state. ODNR could then track exactly how much bang the state was getting for their buck.

In a sense, state match created the ability to provide an annual report that was trackable on a state and county level. Although the match number has varied from year to year, conservation districts have come to rely on these funds to match every local dollar that is provided.

Every year different

To give you an example of how this system works, you need to understand that each year is different. If the economy is booming and more tax dollars are coming into the state and local economies, then the conservation district receives more funding.

Say for instance, that Harrison Soil and Water Conservation District received $10,000 from the county commissioners. The state would match those local dollars, providing an additional $10,000. So, the district would receive a one-to-one state match for a total of $20,000.

I’m using this as an example only. A one-to-one match is difficult to achieve, especially in these hard economic times. But, it has been done, and hopefully, our economy will improve, so that the state match can be at a one-to-one rate in the near future.

Either way, the districts rely heavily on local funding. Local funding is the base for which all other match is considered. In FY 2009, county appropriations for all 88 of Ohio’s conservation districts totaled more than $12.8 million. State funding added more than $9.9 million to the pot to help districts reach their goals of promoting wise land use.

Not mandated

I think it’s important to mention that conservation districts are considered non-mandated agencies. This simply means that each county is not required to fund a conservation district. It doesn’t mean they can’t. It just means that they have the ability to choose their own priorities.

Funding must first go to the mandated agencies, like the police force and auditor’s office, and then to non-mandated agencies like conservation districts.

Current economy

The current economy has taken a toll on most of Ohio’s conservation districts, just like every other business. Many have been forced to downsize and restructure. Employees are taking on additional duties to alleviate the void left behind from unemployed workers. The goals, however, remain the same.

Conservation districts have been working hard to acquire additional funding through grants, donations and we are always looking for a sustainable funding source.

Harrison Soil and Water Conservation District, for instance, has developed a business partnership with a local mining company to provide seeding recommendations on reclaimed mine lands. It won’t save our district, but it has helped us keep a part-time natural resources specialist on staff.

With all that said, I’m left to wonder if it entices you to utilize the services that a conservation district offers, knowing that your tax dollars are funneled directly to your locally led conservation district.

For more information contact your local soil and water conservation district office or visit the ODNR’s Division of Soil and Water Resources at www.dnr.state.oh.us.

About the Author

Yvonne Ackerman is the District Program Administrator for Harrison Soil & Water Conservation District. Ackerman was raised in rural Monroe County, the daughter of a coal miner. She received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agricultural Communications from the Ohio State University and has been working with Ohio conservation districts since 2004. Contact Ackerman at 740-942-8837 or email yackerman@verizon.net. More Stories by Yvonne Ackerman

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