Holeman: Watershed district has drawbacks

By Brady Bauman

Riley County commissioners agree that Wildcat Creek poses a danger of flooding, and if the circumstances align, rather costly flooding to property owners.

How to approach a solution, though, is tricky, they said.

Thursday morning County Counselor Clancy Holeman lined out some options, specifically the pros and cons of forming a watershed and/or drainage district for the areas affected by potential flooding.

Holeman, who said he has spoken with state officials about the issue, told commissioners that while they do have the power to form such a district without a petition, there are drawbacks to doing that.

“The key to me is that a drainage district or a watershed district only has the ability to do things or create projects if those who either reside or own property within the boundaries of that district are willing to tax themselves,” Holeman said. “Without that, all you’ve done is form a governmental entity — a taxing authority — which, in the case of a drainage district, exists in perpetuity… there’s no provision for getting rid of it.

“Now there are provisions for getting rid of a watershed district, but it has a lot more state involvement.”

Most importantly, though, Holeman said, is that after a district is formed, neither the county nor the city of Manhattan has any jurisdiction over it.

“The bottom line is each would have its own governing body — its own board, elected by people within the boundaries of that district,” Holeman said. “They are not subject to oversight in any way by any other local government authority. They don’t answer to anybody other than the people within the boundaries of that district, so it really is, in both cases, you’re creating a governmental entity.

“You can create one. You can start one. But it’s like a wind-up toy and then you just let it go, and you don’t have any control over anything.”

Holeman also described a hypothetical situation in which a citizen could have a complaint against whatever the district is - or isn’t - doing, and the respective commissioner would have to tell that citizen there is nothing the county can do.

Chairman Bob Boyd asked Holeman if such boards could levy taxes.

“They can,” Holeman answered. “It is subject to a vote (of those in the district) at all times.”

Ultimately, though, Holeman said because people generally don’t like to tax themselves, the creation of a watershed or drainage district could prolong any solutions concerning Wildcat Creek flooding. And although the state helps with watershed districts when it comes to planning and engineering for potential projects, he’s wary of their enthusiasm for it.

“Say you (create a watershed or drainage district),” he continued. “We don’t have any assurance that the people within that boundary are going to later approve any projects. That’s just a fact.

“There was some enthusiasm expressed from state officials during our meetings that it would be a great idea to form a watershed district, but it’s easy to say that when they see no impact from it. All the effects would be local. The taxes are levied down here, and projects would all be down here.

“So it’s not difficult for the state regulatory authority to say, ‘What a great idea. Form a watershed district.’ They don’t have any impact. I’m always highly suspicious when someone cheerleads for a result like that, when it doesn’t affect them.”

Boyd agreed.

“They have no skin in the game,” he said.

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