Another Significant Milestone for Conservation District Employees
Legislative Review 2006
by OCC Executive Director Mike Thralls
The highlight of this year’s state budget is the compensation package approved by the Legislature for conservation district employees. The legislature funded a pay equity adjustment for all conservation district employees beginning July 1, 2006. In addition, conservation district employees will receive a five percent pay increase on Oct. 1 along with state employees. The funding for these raises is included in each district’s allocation. Districts are also able to claim reimbursement for director meeting expenses at $25 per meeting for up to 12 regular meetings per director in FY2007.
We are very pleased with the improved compensation package for conservation district employees, which makes their salaries comparable to those of state employees. This has been among OCC’s priorities for several years, but this year our Commissioners, the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and the Oklahoma Association of Conservation District Employees set pay equity as the top priority for the 2006 session of the state Legislature.
This marks a significant milestone and caps a long effort to improve salary and benefits for district employees. In 1989 legislation enabled district employees to enroll in the state employee insurance program, purchase their back years of service in the state retirement system and made them eligible for longevity benefits. In 2003 we gained an increase in health care benefits for conservation district employees to the same level as state employees. And now pay equity has been achieved. The efforts of district directors, district employees, OACD President Dan Lowrance, OACDE President Paula Templeton, OACD Executive Director Clay Pope and OCC combined to achieve this remarkable success.
The second major accomplishment is the five-year designation of one-third of the Water REAP fund to OCC. OCC will be responsible to decide how the Water REAP money will be divided, but the legislation sets watershed rehabilitation as the top priority for REAP funds with Locally-Led and Priority Watershed Cost Share Programs and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program also eligible. OCC’s share from this fund is capped at $2.4 million annually for each of the five years.
Unfortunately, no progress was made in restoring the district and OCC’s operating budget deficit of $870,000, and funding from the NRCS contributions agreement to offset that hole is not available at this time. Filling that deficit was the second priority of this year’s budget request. However, the legislation will allow up to 20 percent of the REAP fund to be used to cover the budget hole. Sadly, that means less money available to put conservation on the ground. Should additional federal funds become available during the year OCC will consider a supplemental allocation of operating funds for districts.
Our next challenge is to improve state funding for the operating budgets of conservation districts and to continue to seek additional dollars for conservation programs like cost-share, watershed operation and maintenance, watershed rehabilitation, invasive species control, and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Clay Pope has suggested the theme for the coming year should be “Lift the Cap” (on the REAP fund) and “Fill the Hole” (in the operating budget).
All in all it has been a good year. The cause of conservation has moved forward. Thanks to each of you for the part you played in making it happen!