Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Districts, plagued by high turnover, will soon offer their employees health and retirement benefits for the first time, thanks in part to a University of Missouri study.

The bill establishing the benefits program was signed by Gov. Mel Carnahan on June 28.

The study was a key factor in convincing legislators to appropriate $848,000 to help districts fund benefits so they can attract and retain skilled people, said Ben Reed, president of the Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Districts Employees Association.

The districts have about 300 full-time employees and an office in each of the state's 114 counties.

"This is such a big boost. Without such benefits, we have had a hard time competing with local businesses for skilled people," Reed said. "Our annual turnover rate is as high as 16 percent."

The author of the study, Sandy Rikoon, MU professor of rural sociology, said, "One of the most striking findings is how few districts provide health insurance to full-time employees. With the rising cost of health care, uninsured employees will often seek work elsewhere,"

SWCD employees have been caught in a bind for years, Reed said. "We are not state and we are not federal employees, so I guess we are public employees." The districts are funded by half the revenue from a tenth-of-a-cent state sales tax. The other half of that tax goes to fund state parks. Health and retirement benefits have not been included in SWCD funding. A few counties do offer district employees limited benefits, Reed said.

In addition to lack of benefits, average salaries of SWCD employees are often lower compared to others doing the same types of work in Missouri, Rikoon said.

"This is a tremendous system. But to make it operate most effectively, you need to have good people working for the districts and these benefits link directly to that," he said.

Andrew Raedeke, who was research associate on the study, said, "There is a real need at the district level where they are facing changes and an expanding number of natural resource issues."

Rikoon and Raedeke are working on a second study to assess the districts' structure and processes. The study will use focus groups throughout Missouri and will look at soil and water conservation districts in other states. The districts provide a critical function in providing educational and technical support affecting conservation from a local, rather than on a state or federal level, said Rikoon.

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