Big projects force Clackamas district to make tough cuts
Two major ongoing projects have created inflexibility in the Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District's upcoming budget and forced cutbacks to its funding of watershed councils in the county.
Both the development of a new headquarters in Beavercreek and purchase of a 319-acre community forest near Estacada have affected the district's budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-2021.
According to Jeff Becker, the district's board chair, this budget cycle is particularly tough for the board and staff due to long-term commitments that have left the agency little extra in terms of discretionary funds.
"There was no policy change here," Becker said. "We made the decision to invest in the new building and the Eagle Creek Forest, and when we made those decisions, we knew things would be tight."
The district is proposing to cut grant funding that it usually doles out to the 10 local watershed councils which partner with residents, landowners and volunteers to improve fish and wildlife habitats throughout Clackamas County.
At the district's April 28 budget committee meeting, the committee approved cutting the grant funding from $245,000 in fiscal year 2019-20, to just $20,755 for fiscal year '20-21, a 92% reduction.
According to Lisa Kilders, the district's interim general manager, these cuts were not made lightly and involved plenty of long discussions and hand-wringing by staff responsible for balancing the budget. At the end of the day, the agency's bottom line and its responsibility to service the debt on the two major projects it funded in previous budget cycles were higher priorities in this year's budget process.
Kilders and Becker agreed: These cuts don't signal a new normal for the district in terms of grant opportunities for local watersheds.
The new headquarters was approved by the district's board of directors in a 5-2 vote back in July of 2018 to settle on a 8,542-square-foot Conservation Resource Center building that cost more than $5 million.
That building — located on a Beavercreek-area farm the district purchased back in 2013 for $655,000 — is nearly complete. Staff are likely to begin occupying the new building in June should the reopening of services begin under statewide lifting of stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19. The original design plans were reset after the board addressed concerns that costs would have ballooned to $6.8 million to construct a preferred larger building.
The district completed its purchase of the Eagle Creek Community Forest at the end of 2018 with help from a $550,000 federal community forest grant. The $1.3 million purchase was made in partnership with the Trust for Public Lands and now connects more than a 1,000 acres of public and conservation lands in the area owned by Portland General Electric and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Becker said that, while these major projects caused district budgets to be tighter than board members had hoped, he still stands by their decision to move forward and invest in these two areas on behalf of the citizens of their district.
Although the news of the depleted grant program dollars wasn't happily received, local watershed leaders understand these decisions are tough to make.
"We really understand that the district is in a tough spot financially," said Neil Schulman, executive director of the North Clackamas Urban Watershed Council. "What I heard during the budget committee meeting is that they support the work the 10 watershed councils in Clackamas all do. As time goes on, we hope they're able to find more money or make some decisions that allows them to support our work."
According to Schulman, much of that $245,000 in grant funding from the district's '19-20 fiscal year budget and in previous years was used to help local landowners, residents and volunteers complete habitat restoration projects or connect them with technical assistance to receive conservation consulting on their property and other such projects.
Schulman said the loss of this funding hurts these watershed councils because they often use that funding to leverage other public support. For example, the North Clackamas Urban Watershed Council is looking to remove a dam in Kellogg Creek in partnership with the city of Milwaukie. Schulman's organization used grant funding from the conservation district to pull in an additional $72,000 from other sources to help fund the planning work on that project.
Diminished grant funding will also cut down on streamside stewardship projects — creating shade, revegetating and removing invasive species — across the district, Schulman said.
Becker said that while he understands the frustration conveyed to the budget committee and to the board over these cutbacks, he commends the watershed councils for remaining positive in light of the tough situation.
"I understood their angst," Becker said. "But I was so impressed with how they handled it. Sure, there was emotion involved, but they were very reasonable, and I was proud of them that they accepted the situation."
The Clackamas Soil & Water Conservation District's board will convene May 19 to hear final public comment on the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year and either approve it as is, or amend and approve.
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