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Jefferson County soil and water district faces tough decisions

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Thanks to some extra earned income and a well-timed voucher for services rendered, the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District is holding its own for now but is not quite out of the woods yet.

The district’s interim executive director, Christine M. Watkins, said Tuesday that because of better-than-expected revenue from tree sales and the district’s agricultural assessment program, as well as a small interim payment from the New York state Agricultural Environmental Management program for work done between December and February, the district was able to avoid engaging in a practice that had landed it in insolvency less than one month ago.

But the district still has to pay back a projected $175,000 to the state before it is eligible to start receiving grant money again, although the number has to be confirmed by a Watertown auditing firm hired to inspect the books.

The district is looking at ways to offset that without relying totally on the county, Mrs. Watkins said via email.

In February, the district faced a veritable meltdown when it was revealed to its board of directors that the former executive director, Brian J. Wohnsiedler, had been borrowing money against future state grants to continue to pay operating costs. It was a risky strategy that Mr. Wohnsiedler said had “always been a practice.”

Unfortunately, rising costs and a faltering economy ran the clock out on Mr. Wohnsiedler.

The board said it had no knowledge of his doings and only learned of the seriousness of the situation after a “whistle blower” came forward to testify against Mr. Wohnsiedler.

While no criminal action is suspected, the board said it had lost confidence in Mr. Wohnsiedler and the executive director stepped down on Feb. 4.

To keep the lights on through the end of March, the board decided to engage in the same practice that lead to Mr. Wohnsiedler’s resignation by using money from one of the district’s contracted agencies to stretch available funds to meet the cost of doing business.

Narrowly avoiding that objectionable option has meant making some tough decisions, however, as the board has decided to lay off another employee in mid-March.

Gary D. Eddy, the district’s full-time forester, will join his former employee Leonard N. Tibbetts, on the unemployment roll. Mr. Tibbetts was laid off last year because of budget constraints.

The district, an independent state-mandated agency authorized by the county, receives its funding from a variety of sources though roughly half of its revenue, $195,840, comes from the county. It has budgeted $386,236 for 2013 expenses.

It has been called “an indispensable resource” by area farmers and offers a variety of programs and services to the residents of the county, including agricultural and educational services, forest management, hydroseeding and installation of dry hydrants, maintenance of recreational trails, water quality management and the renting of equipment.

The workload of the county’s forestry contract, which carries an annual budget of $93,263, will be spread among the staff of five who will remain with the district.

Mrs. Watkins said the district is “continuing to work through this, being very optimistic,” and that the district found itself in this situation because some programs were in the red and hard decisions weren’t made when they needed to be made.

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