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County takes aim at zebra mussels

The Becker County Board stepped up to take the lead Tuesday in the effort to keep zebra mussels out of the county.

Commissioners agreed to contract with an invasive aquatic species specialist for six months, at a cost of $20,000.

The new AIS coordinator position was the No. 1 priority of a county Invasive Aquatic Species Task Force, said Becker County Planning and Zoning Administrator Patty Swenson.

"The committee as a whole prioritized (the list) for the county," Swenson said.

The AIS coordinator "is the first request and the priority of the task force," she said. "We're asking for a commitment from the board to fund a coordinator position."

"You want a commitment of $20,000?" asked Board Chairman Larry Knutson.

"Right," Swenson said. Commissioner Gerry Schram, who sits on the task force, concurred with the request.

The board opted for a six-month contract with a private contractor, in part because it will be speedier than hiring a new county employee, Knutson said.

"Hiring can be a very long process," he said.

"There's also the possibility we can get some expertise in aquatic invasives," Schram added. "As it stands now, we don't have any expertise in Invasive Aquatic Species."

If it doesn't work out, the county can pursue other options after six months, added Commissioner John Okeson.

Commissioner Barry Nelson was not able to attend the meeting, but in a statement he said that he "fully supports the hiring of an AIS coordinator and the establishment of two decontamination units for Becker County."

The board did not act on the request for a decontamination unit on Tuesday.

Moriya Rufer, director of client services at RMB Environmental Laboratories in Detroit Lakes, said she hopes to win the contract for the new position.

"It could be a model for the state if it turns out to be a successful program this year," she said.

One concern, Rufer said, is that funding for educational materials also be made available through the county.

"That costs money as well," she noted.

"We believe this is just the first step," said Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations President Dick Hecock. "If we are going to successfully battle the scourges of AIS we'll have to look at doing more down the road -- but this is a good beginning."

"You have to start somewhere," Knutson agreed.

Other priorities set by the AIS task force include education, implementing a volunteer inspector's program and buying a decontamination unit, Swenson said.

Once a contracted AIS coordinator has been selected, county staff will:

• Develop an AIS website for educational purposes and link with enforcement regarding permitted events and related materials.

• Work with the new coordinator and task force to identify potential funding grants and help coordinate a mass mailing of AIS educational material.

The county board chose the least expensive of four options presented. It would have cost slightly more ($20,280) to hire a temporary AIS coordinator for six months.

It would have cost $21,730 to hire a regular part-time AIS coordinator.

The cost for a regular full-time AIS coordinator would have been $57,236 (with a $40,000 salary, health insurance costs of $13,776 and other benefit costs of $3,460).

The county hopes to land a $7,500 DNR grant to help offset costs for the new position.

The $20,000 is not in the budget, so it will have to come from reserves or existing programs if funding sources cannot be found, Knutson said.

County staff will also assist the new AIS coordinator in an effort to increase the number of volunteer watercraft inspectors, facilitate their scheduling and improve reporting rates to the DNR.

Other elements of the program are education, networking, funding and feedback, and county staff will help in all those areas.

"The importance of this coordinator is going to be drawing all this information together," said Sheriff Tim Gordon. "This coordinator is going to bring all these resources together."

"I would urge you to act with all due haste," said Becker County COLA Vice President Terry Kalil, noting that open water is just a few months away -- the walleye fishing opener is May 12 this year.

The board granted blanket permission to county staff to apply for any grants that pertain the AIS program.

"I want to thank the committee and all its members for all the hard work you've done," Knutson said.

The Detroit Lakes City Council approved granting the DNR right of entry authorization at city public accesses to conduct boat inspections. The council also approved support of the grant to hire an AIS coordinator, but wil have to further approve any funds that would go toward a matching grant.