Who pays the fine in Wabasha County?

Wabasha County, in Minnesota, is what you may picture as a typical agricultural community. However, there are some pretty atypical questions surrounding the county’s agricultural practices, specifically as it pertains to livestock permitting.

Fraud allegations, government cover-up accusations, and missing money are typically things you would find in your favorite spy novel or action movie. But these allegations are real, and the taxpayers in tiny Wabasha County may be on the hook for a lot of money.  Most don’t appear to know it.

Wabasha County is a small, agriculturally based area of the state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s not very big. The area is approximately 522 square miles. The population as of 2013 was at 21,443. Roughly 40 percent of the population is either under 18 years old, or 65 years old and older. The National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) documented over 900 farms as recently as 2007. Overall, it appears to be a typical American rural area.

cattle in feedlot

The Minnesota BWSR and the Pollution Control Agency have rules in place to govern the state’s feedlots (Photo by Chad Smith)

According to a Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources report, in December of that year, the County Feedlot Officer (CFO) was Troy Dankemeyer. The County Feedlot Officers represent counties that participate in a cooperative arrangement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and county governments to implement livestock feedlot rules and regulations in the county. According to the MPCA website, the duties are time-intensive, so the CFO is often a full time job.

Dankemeyer had been overseeing a Natural Resources Block Grant from the MPCA and working on a fiscal year 2011 Clean Water Fund (CWF) Feedlot Water Quality Management Grant. Dankemeyer announced his resignation in December.

After his resignation, there became a question of whether the County Government or the local branch of the state Soil and Water Conservation District should oversee the CFO responsibilities. Members of the MPCA and the BWSR met with local SWCD officials and members of county government to discuss the issue. After several meetings held in December, both the BWSR and MPCA were made aware of some compliance issues in the distribution of the grants to local livestock producers.

feeding cattle

The County Feedlot Officer position is designed to help farmers navigate the state’s lengthy feedlot permitting requirements (Photo by Chad Smith)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dave Weirens describes the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, and what they do to help conserve the environment:

The grants were given to aid in construction on two feedlots in Wabasha County. The Rochester Post-Bulletin website said the feedlots in question were on the Jon Wallerich farm near Wabasha, and the Stelling farm near Millville. The Board of Water and Soil Resources, and the Pollution Control Agency found numerous violations involving both projects. The complete list can be found here. This is a partial list of some of the more important discrepancies:

The Stelling Farm:

The majority of the bills turned in for this project related to work that was not eligible for grant assistance. The money was intended for a manure-handling project, but the bulk of it went to a barn instead, which is not eligible for grant assistance. Additionally, more money was budgeted for the work than was allowable.  The County authorized too much money for ineligible work.

  1. The work required the signature of a professional engineer, and there was documented evidence that a professional engineer named Ron Williams did help with the work.  However, Dankemeyer signed off as the technical representative. There was no proof he was qualified to do so.
  2. Documents showed the Mr. Williams was paid for the work he did, but less than the budgeted amount.  There was no documentation as to what happened to the unspent money.
  3. The grant application showed that the Stelling Farm had 278 animal units. Further investigation showed that at the time of the grant, 393 animal units were on site. A lot with over 300 animal units is not eligible for grants.

The Wallerich Farm:

  1. There were no copies of bills or invoices for work done by the contractor. The only documentation found was a $52,500 invoice for payment from the contractor, Osseo Construction, dated October 4, 2011. There was no documentation that eligible activities were paid for.
  2. A 25 percent local match was necessary to receive the grant for the project. Documentation was not provided, and there was no proof a match existed.
  3. No proof was provided that an engineer worked on this feedlot. Mr. Dankemeyer signed off as the technical representative for this project, again, with no proof that he was qualified. According to the application, the technical assistance budget was to go to “local technical,” which meant county staff. There was no documentation that the funds went to pay any of the county staff.
  4. A maximum of five percent of the grant money was allowed for administration costs. County documents showed over $6,000 in expenses, but there was no documentation of any administration costs ever being paid.
  5. Dankemeyer appears to have falsified the signature of the landowner on the contract, which would make the whole item null and void.

The overall conclusion of the investigation resulted in a steep fine levied against the county, and grant money withheld as well. Some of the earliest reports in the Rochester Post-Bulletin said the total fine was $115,579. The BWSR is also withholding $90,000 in grants to the county until the problem is resolved.

The overarching question is who’s going to pay the fine?

Julie Porcher is a landowner in Wabasha County, and on a one-woman mission to bring accountability and transparency to county government.

Julie Porcher

Julie Porcher, a Wabasha County landowner, is waging a one-woman campaign to bring transparency to county government (Photo by Chad Smith)

She’s asking the same question: who is going to pay this fine?

“In Wabasha County, the Board of Water and Soil Resources grant fraud  is very important to all the taxpayers,” said Porcher. “For one thing, it’s a very large sum of money. The fine is over $115,000, which they expect to be repaid, and the state has [now] spent $9,000 dollars investigating the county, and they expect to be repaid.”

A questionable Wabasha County government document

Here is an official Wabasha County government document that appears to imply that the landowner didn’t actually sign the documents allowing him to receive grant money for help on project, and seems to make light of that face (Photo by Chad Smith)

“So far in 2014, there’s over $93,000 being withheld, and these [dollars] are all for clean water projects,” said Porcher. “This hurts the county on so many levels.”

She said it’s going to have a potentially serious effect on the county’s farmers. “The feedlot program will now be administered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Most counties in southeastern Minnesota administer it locally. With the PCA doing it now, there can be significant fines levied.  It’s much better to be administered locally.”

“The County Feedlot Officer Program is meant to provide an opportunity to have a local representative for the MPCA,” said Paul Brietzke, a Permit Officer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, based in Rochester.  “That’s part of why the program was put in place, to have people that are in the county work for the county, to be accessible for the farmers in that county.”

Brietzke said, “The MPCA regional offices primarily work with the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), while the County Feedlot Officers typically work with the smaller farmers.”

There is an advantage to having the Feedlot Program administered locally.  “Procedurally, the Feedlot Officer may administer the program a little differently {from county to county}, but the actual administration of the rules technically still has to be met, whomever is issuing the permit,” said Brietzke.

Porcher said, “It hurts the taxpayers because that money was spent, and it was spent for things that were not even eligible [for assistance], and now the money has to come back. Where are they going to go to get it? Are they going to go to the taxpayer? I don’t know where else it can come from.”

Julie Porcher puts the situation and the questions she wants answered into her own words here:

 

Deb Roschen is a member of the Wabasha County Board of Commissioners, and she said there hasn’t been a lot of movement in recent months toward a resolution. “Interim County Administrator Michael Plant recently reported to the Board that he’d been contacted by Dave Weirens of the BWSR.  He would like to meet and discuss options for resolving the grant issue.” She said, “I asked if that meant the BWSR might be willing to negotiate the $115,000, he acknowledged that may be so.”

Deb Röschen at Work

Wabasha County Commissioner Deb Roschen, working at Christ Community Church in Rochester, Mn (Photo by Chad Smith)

“We’ve had some recent communications between the county and the Board,” said Dave Weirens, the Acting Assistant Director for Programs and Policy at the BWSR. “We’ve discussed the current status of the grant violations that we’ve previously identified.”

Weirens said the Board has approved a Corrective Action Plan put together by the County to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again, but he did point out that it can’t be put in place as soon as possible because of the grant money that’s being withheld until the dispute is resolved.

The situation remains fluid.

“The next step is a face-to-face meeting with county officials,” said Weirens. “We’ll explore, what are the options to resolve the violations so that we can move on with what again needs to be an ongoing partnership with Wabasha County on conservation.”

“If I were to put on my optimism hat for a second, I would hope this would be all wrapped up within the next 2 to 3 months,” said Weirens.

Julie Porcher, who supplied a lot of the documentation for this story, sent a written request to the Wabasha County Interim Administrator Michael Plant to be present for the discussions between the county and the BWSR. This was Mr. Plant’s response:

Ms. Porcher,

Thank you for your email over the weekend requesting to be present during potential settlement discussions between the County and the Board of Water and Soil Resources.  After consulting with the County Attorney’s Office it has been determined that the County will not accommodate your request.    The main reasons for this determination are to preserve the confidentiality of attorney client communications as well as the potential of discussing private data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

If you have any other questions regarding this matter I would ask that you contact the Wabasha County Attorney’s Office.

Sincerely,

Michael Plante

County Administrator

651.565.3096

Porcher’s response? “So much for transparency. Your county government does not want you to know how this grant fraud money will be repaid. Mr. Plante states ‘attorney client confidentiality’. We pay the county attorney. We are the clients. The money being paid will come from our tax dollars and the meeting should be public. They are not discussing private data. The investigation phase is over. This is the ‘pay the money back’ phase,” said Porcher.

The full article regarding Porcher’s request and subsequent denial can be found on the Eye on Wabasha Facebook page here.

The entire situation is still unresolved, and from the outside, movement appears to be minimal. As long as this continues, the county’s taxpayers and farmers appear to be stuck in limbo. The question remains, who will pay the fine from the BWSR? The other question no one seems to want to answer is why has Troy Dankemeyer not been tracked down by county authorities and made to answer questions about what apparently is illegal activity?  With no answers from the Wabasha County Attorney’s office on public record, the questions appear set to linger for some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Who pays the fine in Wabasha County?

  1. Pingback: Settlement looms between Wabasha County and BWSR | Field 2 Field

  2. Great article. Very interesting to know that this type of corruption is taking place in Wabash County. Let’s see what the county will do about it.

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