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Former Iowa DNR official: Livestock farm fund was misspent

October 13, 2017 GMT

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A state fund set up to oversee Iowa livestock farms and manage the millions of gallons of manure they produce each year has been illegally diverted for other uses by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, according to the program’s former manager.

Gene Tinker worked as the DNR coordinator of animal feeding operations for 14 years before he was laid off in August. In an appeal seeking to have his job reinstated, Tinker said he was told the layoff was due to state budget problems, even though the fund paying for his program received $1.6 million a year from fees charged to the livestock farms.

A 2005 state law requires the funding to be used only for the program, which was set up to ensure compliance with barn construction and manure management regulations designed to protect the environment. Under the law, the money cannot be used or appropriated for other purposes, and the DNR is barred from transferring money “from the compliance fund’s assessment account to another fund or account, including but not limited to the fund’s general account.”

If the law were followed, there would be enough money to pay his salary, Tinker argued in documents filed last month with the Public Employment Relations Board. He said the DNR violated the law this year when it spent $165,296 to pay rent for office space for the DNR’s six field offices.

Tinker told The Associated Press this week that he believes the DNR for years hasn’t adequately accounted for how the money is spent.

“As long as I’ve been there, I’ve asked to see how that money was utilized and was never allowed to. And I’ve made comments to a number of people that I didn’t feel $1.6 million manure management fees could possibly be used correctly and was told not to worry about it,” he said.

Tinker said another employee who complained that the money was disappearing was told to stay quiet or risk his job. He said someone needs to figure out where the money is going.

“The department fully denies the allegations made by Mr. Tinker,” DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said. He declined further comment, saying the department respects the appeals process and Tinker’s right to appeal.

Sen. David Johnson, the Legislature’s sole independent lawmaker and a dairy farmer, said he plan to ask for a state audit. He said it appears the money that is supposed to be in the fund “has been moved somewhere and has been used for other purposes.”

“I’m aware of that situation and I believe that Mr. Tinker has grounds for his appeal. There are many people across the state who are very disturbed about his termination,” Johnson said.

Johnson said animal agriculture is expanding in Iowa, which is the nation’s leading pork and egg producer, and that the state must have efficient oversight. With the industry’s rapid expansion, “this is no time to be reducing staff,” he said.

Tinker said the DNR typically gets about 200 new permits a year for barns to house cattle, pigs or chickens which must be reviewed and, depending on how many animals are housed, must be monitored for compliance with state regulations.

Iowa had a record number of pigs as of Sept. 1, at 22.9 million — up 7 percent from a year ago — while the chicken population has grown 5 percent in the last year to more than 55 million hens, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

More than 1 million cows are in Iowa feedlots, up 2.8 percent from a year ago.

The overall state revenue shortfall was estimated at about $100 million in June, but that estimate fell to around $13 million last month based on an improved revenue forecast. The state’s $7.2 billion budget runs state government.