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Conservation windfall baffles county pols

Douglas County's Land Conservation Committee would like to commit $600,000 of American Transmission Co. environment settlement money for conservation efforts, as intended by the Public Service Commission.

Douglas County's Land Conservation Committee would like to commit $600,000 of American Transmission Co. environment settlement money for conservation efforts, as intended by the Public Service Commission.

However, Douglas County's Administration Committee is reluctant to set aside the money in a reserve fund without a specific plan in place. Several members aren't sure it's necessary to set aside that much money in reserve when there are other pressing financial issues facing the county. Others question the legality of setting aside the reserve.

Conservation is a good idea, but $600,000 is too much, said Supervisor Keith Allen, a member of the administration committee.

"I'm not so sure that's legal," said Administrator Steve Koszarek. While he likes the idea of setting aside money, Koszarek said, "the taxpayer wants to have some say on a regular basis about how their money is spent."

The land conservation committee and department would like to draw interest from the fund for a steady source of revenue to pay for projects.

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The fund would generate about $30,000 annually in interest income that could be used for the projects, said Christine Ostern, the county's land conservation officer.

Supervisor Kay McKenzie, a member of both committees, said other counties levy for conservation activities and Douglas County has an opportunity to do it with the one-time ATC money.

The ATC revenue comes from a $1.8 million settlement from the Arrowhead-Weston power line running from Hermantown to Wausau. The settlement was designated for environmental projects by the state Public Service Commission.

"The logical place that $1.8 million would have went is forestry, land conservation and maybe even land and development," said Supervisor Mark Liebaert. He said setting aside $600,000 in a reserve fund comes with little risk to the county; if legal, it would allow the county to use interest for conservation projects.

"Before we set aside $200,000 or $600,000 or $900,000, let's go for a little more detail and planning," said Supervisor Jack Sweeney. He anticipates the plan and priorities will change over time, but it would give the administration committee a better idea about how the money would be spent.

The administration committee directed the land conservation committee to develop a plan with estimates and priorities.

"It's going to cost us to find that out," McKenzie said. "Having no money, how do you prioritize?" The money, she said, wouldn't be spent without the administration committee's approval when projects arise.

Ostern said land conservation has a ranking system in place already because the department gets more requests than time and money allows.

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Members of the land conservation committee are concerned the one-time money will be spent if it's not designated in a conservation reserve fund.

In January, the county board sought authorization to use about $1 million of the settlement for capital projects such as highway improvements and county facility upgrades, which was later approved by the state commission.

While conservation committee members provided the administration with a list of proposed projects, knowing their cost isn't possible without hiring a consultant or engineer, McKenzie and Liebaert agreed.

Land conservation saw that $1.8 million being "nibbled away to a certain degree -- large chunks being ripped out of it," said Stephen Rannenberg, zoning administrator. "And the fear was that if no action was taken to have some of that money set aside for conservation projects that at the end of the day there would be no money for them to draw from."

Rannenberg said he doubted the PFC would have set aside the money for conservation if it couldn't be done legally. He said it would be no different from the designation of forestry reserves for land purchases.

Generally, when government sets aside money, it has to have specific projects in mind, Koszarek said.

"I think we need more information ... before this passes," Board Chairman Doug Finn said.

Shelley Nelson can be reached at (715) 395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com .

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