Some members of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District board have raised questions about a colleague’s association with a grading company that has received $2.1 million from a district-funded conservation program.
As the NRD wrangled over its 2014 budget, a few board members tried unsuccessfully to cut funding for the conservation assistance program, which helps farmers pay for terraces and other conservation projects.
Since 2003, Japp Bros. Grading has received $2.1 million for terrace work under the program, second highest among the participating contractors, according to NRD data.
The company is co-owned by Matt Japp, the brother of NRD board member Scott Japp.
But Scott Japp, who represents Washington County and parts of Burt, Thurston and Dakota Counties, said he saw the attempt to reduce the program’s budget as a political message.
He said he sees no conflict because he has never owned shares in the company and would recuse himself from any vote involving the company. In addition, his brother holds a minority share, and he pointed out that farmers — not the agencies that fund the program — select the contractor.
The farmers can apply to the NRD for funding.
“I (do) part-time work for numerous construction companies. Numerous construction companies benefit from different programs of the NRD,” Scott Japp said. “However, I have never worked for a construction company on their particular project that has benefited from the NRD. I stay away from that.”
Matt Japp is the registered agent for Japp Bros. Grading, but the company’s majority shareholder is Brenda Wolf, Matt Japp’s girlfriend and business partner. The two share an address near Kennard, Neb.
The Japp brother who makes the company name plural is Lonny Japp, said Wolf, whose shares she bought out in 2007.
Wolf said Scott Japp’s role in the business doesn’t amount to much.
“He runs a dozer,” she said. “Part time.”
For years the two-term NRD board member has quarreled with district staff and other board members, who censured him earlier this year for what they called a pattern of rude, abusive and alienating behavior.
Board treasurer John Conley, who wanted to cut the conservation program’s funding by one-quarter, said his move was purely a fiscal consideration.
But Conley also mentioned that Scott Japp collects a paycheck from Japp Bros.
At a board meeting in April, Conley flagged a Japp Bros. bid and asked Scott Japp to “explain your association, if any, with that bid.”
Scott Japp’s reply, according to an audio recording of the meeting: “Nothing to do with it. Common last name.”
He later told a reporter he meant he didn’t have anything to do with the bid, which was submitted without his knowledge.
District officials also have raised questions about a request he made in 2011 for the names, sign-up dates and contract amounts for farmers who participate in the conservation assistance program.
Scott Japp said he wasn’t trolling for a list of potential customers for Japp Bros., but rather was trying to ensure that the first-come, first-served program was being administered correctly and that no one was jumping the line.
The NRD denied his request for information.
Most of the conservation program work involves installing terraces, which are earthen structures that reduce farmland erosion and runoff. This provides flood control and improves downstream water quality — more so than the big metro-area dam projects favored by members of the regional watershed pact, Scott Japp said.
A typical terracing project costs $30,000 to $50,000, and the district’s cost-share is 40 percent to 75 percent, depending on whether the federal government chips in, NRD General Manager John Winkler said.
This year, farmers in the district already have submitted applications for about $1.3 million worth of terrace work, a figure that typically rises each fall, Scott Japp said.