ST. PAUL -- In sparsely populated Lac qui Parle County along Minnesota's western border, free recycling soon could be a luxury of the past.
Officials there are bracing for multiple cuts in state funding, including a hefty slice in money that helps pay for a recycling program.
"As far as next year, I don't know if we can budget to be able to do it," said environmental officer Darrel Ellefson.
The county contracts for the service to be provided by Jeff Olson, who in the past received $55,000 for his services. That's already been cut to $49,500 and cuts proposed under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget would drop the funding to $42,900.
The money will be tough for the county to replace as it struggles to absorb other proposed reductions.
Even when times were good, state government was cutting pollution control funding. Now, as politicians try to bridge a $4.2 billion gulf in the budget, environmentalists worry that money for pollution control, prevention, education and cleanup programs will continue to seep away.
"There is no fat to cut out because they had no fat to begin with," said Scott Elkins, state director for the Sierra Club. "It is going to result in dirtier air and dirtier water."
Pawlenty's budget would redirect about $38.5 million in funds dedicated to environmental and natural resources projects into the general treasury -- a major concern for environmentalists, said Lisa Doerr of the League of Conservation Voters.
Several state agencies deal with these issues and many also will see significant cuts in their general fund budgets, including the Board of Soil and Water Resources and the Office of Environmental Assistance.
The Pollution Control Agency, which most broadly oversees contamination and pollution, was largely spared under Pawlenty's budget proposal because it cut more than 80 positions and several programs a couple of years ago.
But there's a hitch: the Legislature must approve a plan that would allow the MPCA to consolidate several fees into one account that could be used for various purposes.
If that doesn't happen, "it would be a fairly significant problem," said Cathy Moeger, chief financial officer for the MPCA.
It would mean drastic cutbacks in the cleanup of superfunds and brownfields, for instance.
The MPCA has tried to consolidate fees before, without success. Currently, most fees that are collected are supposed to be spent in the same area. For instance, solid waste taxes are to fund solid waste programs.
Allowing more flexible use of the money would give the agency more options for balancing the books, but in the past, some have opposed taxing some activities to pay for programs that aren't directly linked.
In putting together this year's proposal, MPCA officials targeted a narrower list of fees, making the plan palatable to more people.
If it's approved, the department's budget would be one of the few without deep reductions this year.
"The governor's budget is very fair to us," Moeger said.
Even if the consolidation goes through, several smaller programs would be cut, including:
* A permitting program for tire transporters and processors. It originally was set up to clean up a backlog of waste tires improperly stored in the state.
* Education and training on the proper disposal of used oil for people and businesses would end, as would reimbursement to service stations for costs associated with contaminated oil.
* The agency would no longer fund research for reducing mercury emissions from the taconite industry.
* An enhanced air toxics monitoring program in the Twin Cities metropolitan area would be eliminated.
* Feedlot monitoring funds also would be cut, but the agency has minimized the pain for counties by cutting several MPCA positions and transferring that money to counties.
Those reductions seem miniscule compared with environmentally related programs housed in other agencies.
For example, the Office of Environmental Assistance would take a 20 percent, $1.6 million cut in general fund spending, plus a 20 percent, $5 million cut in funds dedicated to waste reduction and recycling grants.
Dave Benke, strategic directions manager, said the agency is suggesting cash-strapped counties consider sharing programs, cutting back on the frequency of pickups, or reducing the number of items the programs collect.
The Board of Water and Soil Resources also would be cut about 20 percent, forcing the elimination of local water planning grants -- the state's key strategy for water resources protection.
BWSR officials estimate about 1,600 projects, mostly in greater Minnesota, would be lost without this funding.
Executive Director Ron Harnack said it was deemed more important to keep intact funds for the Wetland Conservation Act, for instance, but acknowledged that eliminating the water planning grants and other services "was very difficult."
"I think long-term, it's going to have an impact on how those local units of government are going to continue to be proactive," Harnack said.
Pam Rivers, natural resources manager for Nicollet County in southern Minnesota, said loss of the state money could mean the end of up to 11 projects in her area.
One is a clean water partnership with several other counties that share the Rush River, which has had pollution and flooding problems.
Local water planners want to find out where pollution is coming from and do a flow study to determine where the best places would be to slow the water down so it doesn't flood nearly every year.
In northern Minnesota's Cass County, officials have already sent out notices that monitoring on about 70 lakes will stop. The program is designed to keep track of the lakes' temperature and levels of dissolved oxygen, among other things.
"It's kind of the canary in the mine to tell us if something is happening in a lake that we need further testing for," said John Sumption, deputy director of Cass County Environmental Services.
The cuts, he said, would "put us back to where we're putting out fires and guessing."
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