Buffalo Rapids considers splitting project

 By Kay Braddock

Following a year of contentious debates between district I and district II commissioners, the Buffalo Rapids Board of Control is now contemplating splitting the irrigation project. The idea, presented at last week’s monthly meeting by district II president Barry Rakes, came with no formal process on how to go about the split. 
“What I’m looking at is, we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things,” Rakes said, explaining that he hoped if interest existed in the split that it could be done “peacefully” between the districts.
District I extends from Fallon to Glendive. District II includes Miles City, Terry and Fallon. 
Rakes noted the majority of water users in his district favor the split. District I water users are expected to address the idea at a Nov. 18 evening meeting in Glendive. 
After checking with the Bureau of Reclamation, Rakes said he discovered the project could be split between the two districts because power, operation and maintenance bills are already divided between the two. Currently district I pays a 58.5 percent portion of bills owed by the irrigation project while district II pays 41.5 percent.
The BR Board of Control is made up of seven commissioners, elected by water users of the irrigation project, which serves 28,000 acres of land in a three-county area. Three commissioners from each district serve three-year terms, while the one-year member-at-large commissioner alternates between Terry, division 1, 2 and 3 of the project.
In the past year the irrigation project has faced heated discussions concerning employee benefits, financial woes and a strained relationship between commissioners and longtime BR project manager Dave Schwarz leading  to Schwarz’s resignation.  
“This has caused division guys,” Rakes said of the past year. “Let’s not take it any further. It’s already causing hard feelings everywhere, and I hate to see it.”
The idea of splitting the project was met with questions and hesitant acceptance.
“So if that would happen we would have a reduction in work force too?” District II commissioner Jim Finneman asked.  
Rakes agreed that would be a likely consequence. 
Other questions included how the split would affect current union negotiations and cost benefits or losses to the districts. Rakes and none of the other six commissioners were able to provide definite answers to those questions, although Rakes said he believed union negotiations would continue regardless of whether the project split or not.
“I’m not totally against that idea,” BR Board of Control Chairman Ray Roethle said. 
District I commissioner James Whitmer expressed similar sentiments noting that “maybe the idea has merit” but noted more details need to be gathered before any decisions could be made.
Member-at-large commissioner Ric Holden expressed concerns over the idea, pointing out that it first needed to pass a three-prong test. The proposal of splitting the project needs to be well understood, desired by water users and cost effective, Holden said. 
District I commissioner Don Buxbaum said commissioners would need to “think hard and serious” on the idea before making a decision.
        Although water users in his district may be considered as those who complain the most, Buxbaum said legitimate issues exist in his district, pointing out that he believes district II receives better service than district I.
“I refuse to burn weeds in Terry, Montana or Shirley,” Buxbaum said after his experience working as a BR employee. “I thought when I went to work for Buffalo Rapids, Buffalo Rapids was Buffalo Rapids, regardless of where you were needed, you worked. I found out the hard way, it doesn’t work that way.” 
The proposal to split the irrigation project came at the end of a three-hour meeting which included heated discussions regarding employee year end bonuses, whether the project should hire a labor law attorney to help with union negotiations and whether both districts were required to pay a $3,900 audit bill.
Partial bonuses approved
After some discussion, including an argument made by Whitmer describing his change of mind on the issue, commissioners voted 5-2 to offer half of the original proposed employee year end bonuses to 17 employees. Finneman and Holden offered the two nay votes. 
Whitmer recalled a conversation he had earlier where he was told to exclude year end bonuses this late in the year would be perceived as “crappy.” Noting despite BR’s financial woes, Whitmer said he wasn’t prepared to disrupt employees’ holiday season when many have likely come to expect the added financial boost to their household incomes.
Bonuses will cost the project $3,275.
Lawyer options discussed
Holden presented information on a Billings attorney that he said could help the project with upcoming union negotiations. Fees include a $255 hourly charge along with a $5,000 retainer.
“It’s good that you have an idea of who you want to go see,” district II commissioner Scott Sackman said. “But why stick that money out if you don’t have to.” 
Both Sackman and Rakes argued against hiring an attorney immediately. Buxbaum agreed with waiting.
Rakes suggested meeting with the union representatives first before deciding on whether the project needed to spend the extra money on an attorney.
After agreeing to hold off on retaining a lawyer, Roethle appointed commissioners Rakes, Whitmer and Holden to the negotiation committee. Other BR water users may also be appointed to the committee, who will later meet with union representatives to begin talks on employee wages and benefits.
Audit expenses discussed
After much discussion on whether both districts were responsible for paying a $3,900 audit bill, commissioners agreed to table the matter.
Both Rakes and Sackman of district II questioned whether their district should be responsible for a bill they said was presented under “false pretenses,” and was unnecessary since an audit for the project was already prepared earlier in the year.
“She was asked to look into specific accounts,” Rakes said, questioning the true intention of hiring the accountant.
Rakes also noted the board was originally told the cost would be  $2,400.
Holden, who first proposed the audit, said the audit was performed to help prepare the project for upcoming union negotiations.
Sackman continued to question the motives for the audit and district I’s responsibility for the bill.
“It was the first thing she said. She specialized in fraud,” Sackman said. “(Those) were the first words out of her mouth.”  
“The bill has to be (paid) according to the split and the bylaws of the organization,” Holden responded.
Commissioners will address the bill at the Dec. monthly meeting after seeking advice from BR lawyer Dale Hubber.

Published Nov. 18, 2009

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