Water rates, finances covered at BR annual meeting

 By Jamie Ausk-Crisafulli
Yellowstone Newspapers

        Buffalo Rapids Irrigation Project water users attended the BR Board of Control annual meeting Nov. 3 to hear what board members had to report concerning the financial state of the irrigation project and what was in store for the future of Buffalo Rapids.

The meeting drew a lot of interest following a well-publicized tumultuous few months for Buffalo Rapids in which reports of financial strain were made public, employees announced their intention to unionize and the project manager resigned.
Approximately 75 Buffalo Rapids water users, board members and employees attended the meeting held in Glendive.
Representatives from both Buffalo Rapids districts discussed the financial state of their districts’ budgets.
District II President Barry Rakes and District I President Don Buxbaum both expressed concern that their respective districts may not have enough money to cover operating expenses through the end of the year.
The recently set assessment for 2010 for District I, which includes area of Dawson County, is $37.50 per acre. The current assessment for District II is $31 per acre.
While District II raised its rates $1.50 per acre for 2010, the first assessment increase since 1998, there is still concern that will not be enough. 
“We’re going to have to take out of reserves to make it through the year,” Rakes said at the meeting.
In his report to the BR irrigators, Buxbaum had similar feelings about District I’s financial state. While District I board members also raised assessments for 2010, Buxbaum is worried that those increases might come up short. 
“We’re not sure that’s gonna be enough,” he said, adding that a letter of default from a bank loan this summer may limit the options the board has to cover its operating expenses.
“We’re having to make some choices that I don’t like .. I’m also a farmer, so I know where (the money) is coming from,” said Buxbaum.
The future of the project’s pipeline project was questioned throughout the meeting. While many landowners praised the irrigation benefits of the pipeline, others, including some members of the board, felt that the pipeline construction was putting BR in financial jeopardy.
While much of the pipeline is financed through grants, tracking of those grants has been lacking, according to discussion at the meeting. The board does not have knowledge of grant status as it has never been provided with grant reporting forms for the grants received by BR, according to board member Ric Holden.
Buxbaum said while the board supports the pipeline, temporarily halting pipeline work is now on the table as the board tries to get a better handle on BR finances.
“We’re all for (the pipeline) ... we just have got to stop and see where we’re at ... we’re running blind and we don’t know where we’re at,” he said.
Grant tracking was just one item on the summarized findings of the financial audit  conducted by Anderson Zurmeuhlen Accounting Firm for the board in September. Other items recommended as a result of the audit, released at Tuesday’s meeting, included: Destroying the project manager signature stamp used for the check signing and adding board members to the account as signors to provide oversight and facilitate timely disbursement of funds; Requiring checks be hand-signed and include board review and supporting invoices for expenditures; Removing the project manager as authorized signor on checks; Establishing a travel expense form and considering a policy on pre-approval of travel costs by the board; Full accounting of project inventory to better determine assets; Developing a financial reporting balance sheet to be reviewed by the board; Developing a system to track employee use of BR charge accounts for personal use and an agreement that would allow BR to withhold charges from employee’s final paycheck to cover those costs if needed.
While concerns were expressed by water users at the end of the meeting, varying from the financial state of the project to issues with water availability, many in the audience expressed support for the board, employees and project manager Dave Schwarz. Schwarz, who recently submitted his letter of resignation with intention to work through the end of the year, was not in attendance at the meeting.
Board minutes for Buffalo Rapids meetings can be found atbuffalorapidsmeetings.blogspot.com/.

Published Nov. 11, 2009

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