MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A costly project led to finger-pointing in a small Minnesota town over a big pot of state taxpayer money.
The Crane Lake Water and Sanitary District received nearly two million dollars in Legacy Funds. That’s a sales tax we all pay to protect our water and parks.
But when WCCO’s Liz Collin looked into who decides which project gets covered, she found a complicated process and demands for a better system.
“They are spending money, I think, needlessly,” said Crane Lake cabin owner, Brent Bystrom.
He spent his summers in Crane Lake, working as a fishing guide in the small tourist town near the Canadian border.
“The work that they’re doing is very costly and they’re not applying good, economic principals to that,” explained Bystrom.
But he has grown up to question what’s being done to supposedly protect the waters he cherished as a child, watching closely as the Crane Lake Water and Sewer District installed a costly centralized sewer pipe — putting home and cabin owners on the hook for thousands of dollars and a monthly bill.
The installation has been offset by a mix of state bonds and Legacy dollars detailed in meeting minutes. Some of those tax dollars were spent on a truck, a skid loader, and a maintenance building.
“I would argue that a storage building doesn’t improve the environment,” said Bystrom.
But, when it comes to making decisions about where that Legacy money goes, WCCO found a complex process — that may be more about politics than a lasting legacy.
“We’ve raised that issue over and over again,” said Legislative Auditor, Jim Nobles.
He’s pushing for a better measuring system with more transparency. Nobles’ office has kept a close eye on Legacy Funds since voters approved the amendment 10 years ago.
“We are talking about a lot of money,” explained Nobles.
A pot totaling between $250 and $300 million dollars a year.
But Nobles waved red flags as recently as last spring, reminding lawmakers and stage agencies to have as much Legacy money as possible applied to the direct costs and to limit administrative costs.
“We have really had a lot of questions,” said Nobles.
No one board decides how to divvy up the money. Instead, it’s left up to a long list of agencies. And, ultimately Nobles says to legislators at the State Capitol lining up to bring dollars back to their districts.
“That’s kind of the tension that goes on. Is this really worthy of bonding money is it worthy of legacy money? Or, is it just a local project that can get some money because they can” said Nobles.
Which brings us back up north.
“Knowing what I know today I would never have voted for it,” said Bystrom.
Where Brent Bystrom is certain a sewer pipe extension is more about making money in the future for this town than water protection.
“They want additional people to pay a monthly fee to support their centralized wastewater treatment facility, and why not do that, the money’s free” said Bystrom.