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Ward County Courthouse . . . A portion of the funds raised
through the half-cent sales tax would go toward renovation
of the current courthouse (above). The new sales tax would
also go toward construction of a new county office building,
expansion of the jail, and repairs to county roads and bridges.
In service for 84 years . . . The current courthouse was built
in 1929 at a cost of $450,000. The Ward County Jail was added
to the courthouse in 1984 with a capacity of 86 inmates in 56 cells.
By Caroline Downs
One of the biggest decisions for Ward County voters next Tuesday comes near the end of the ballot--the yes-or-no vote to approve an additional half-cent sales tax to be collected throughout the county, including retail businesses in Kenmare, Berthold, Donnybrook and Carpio.
Money generated from this sales tax would have a specific purpose to fund construction of a county office building, renovation of the current courthouse, expansion of the jail, and repairs to roads and bridges throughout the county that were damaged by river and overland flooding in 2011.
The question is listed as Ward County Measure 2012-01 on the ballot and includes a timetable for the tax from January 1, 2013, to December 31, 2022.
Kenmare city council member Chuck Leet serves on the Citizen’s Committee that assisted the Ward County Commission in developing plans for the measure. He supports the measure, given the current demands on the county services. “Nobody wants to see tax increases,” he said, “but in this situation, Ward County is up against a wall.”
That wall includes spending $330,000 a year of property taxes to rent office space on the north side of Minot just to house Ward County Social Services. That wall also involves an overcrowded jail facility that often has to release individuals arrested for misdemeanors waiting for their first court appearance, and cramped judicial and States Attorney’s offices without any privacy for individuals using those services.
Leet took one of the public tours of the county facilities offered in September. “There are people sitting on top of people in that courthouse,” he said. “When you go through there, you find out what they’re putting up with for space. The jail is packed. They have people sleeping on the floor in the dayroom, and the whole system is so overloaded with the population we have.”
The increase in the county’s population is a continuing trend, according to the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, from 58,800 in 2000 to 61,600 in 2010 to an estimated 77,600 by 2020.
“With our population increase, there’s a demand for more services,” Leet said. “But those departments can hardly do their jobs now, and they cannot add employees because there is no room for them. Right now, I would have to say they’re all doing a heck of a job under the circumstances.”
Ward County Commissioner John Fjeldahl of Berthold said the commissioners unanimously approved this measure for the ballot. Like Leet, he noted the crowded jail conditions and the demands on the county’s court system.
“We have had judges added in the past six years,” he said, “and there will probably be another judge or two seated in this district soon.”
Fjeldahl believes a sales tax is more equitable way to raise the money needed by the county, as opposed to a bond issue voters rejected in 2006 to address the same projects. That proposal would have relied on property taxes for funding.
“With our demographics in the county right now, this is a much fairer way to fund [these projects],” he said. “We have a lot of residents living in temporary situations, but who need county services.”
Dan Deaver, a farmer and rancher from the Berthold area, joined the Citizen’s Committee to assist the Ward County Commission with this project. He admitted to voting against the 2006 bond issue specifically because it relied on property taxes. “If projects like that need to be funded, it should be with a sales tax,” he said. “To me, it’s a fairer tax. Just about everybody uses the courthouse at some point.”
Deaver also took one of the county facility tours, saying the situations in the jail and courtrooms convinced him of the needs.
“The courthouse was built in 1929 and at that time, they built two courtrooms,” he said.
He continued by saying five courtrooms are necessary now, along with offices for each judge’s staff. He was especially concerned with the juvenile court set-up. “That’s in the basement, with just one hallway to the courtroom,” he said. “One hallway in and out. It’s not user-friendly.”
He continued, “If this would pass, they could build six or eight cells to house juveniles, because they have to be kept away from the adults. The juvenile court would have new jail space and a new courtroom in the basement.”
Tax ends when
$39.3 million is raised
DLA/JLG Architects provided the Ward County Commission and the Citizen’s Committee with generous estimates for the project costs, including a new 65,000 square foot office building with space for Ward County Social Services, Emergency Management, Emergency Operations Center, Commissioners’ Chambers, Extension Services, Veteran’s Services, Auditor’s and Treasurer’s offices, Recorder, Superintendent of Schools, and Tax Equalization, and a price tag of $15.3 million.
Courthouse renovations would require about $3.5 million and provide space for the overcrowded conditions in the court system and States Attorney’s offices.
The Ward County jailhouse expansion is expected to add 42 additional cells, with capacity for 84 more inmates, at an estimated cost of $10.5 million.
Finally, an additional $10 million would be allocated to infrastructure repairs for the county’s roads and bridges still damaged from last year’s flooding. Fjeldahl said a portion of that money could be made available to townships as well.
A total of $39.3 million would be collected through the half-cent sales tax. If that amount is collected before the end of the ten years scheduled for the sales tax, the tax is terminated.
Commissioners estimated between $6 and $7 million would be collected annually through the tax, at current spending levels.
“When the money is raised, the tax is over,” said Fjeldahl. “For me, that’s important.”
Fjeldahl explained the county commissioners also intend to seek state and federal assistance with the projects, especially the jail expansion and courthouse renovations. “If we get any grants, that would count against the tax, too, and help it terminate quickly,” he said. “If we collect the money within four years, the tax goes away.”
Fjeldahl wants voters to know a cap has been established for the half-cent tax, which would be the amount collected on a $2,500 purchase. “The most anyone would pay is $12.50 on a single purchase,” he said, “and all current exemptions for sales taxes would be exempt from this tax as well.”
Deaver appreciates the “sunset” aspect of the tax. “This tax is point-specific for a project,” he said, adding that the county commissioners could not simply vote to extend the tax. County residents would have to vote again.
“If [the commissioners] did want to extend it, at least I can vote on it to go away,” added Deaver.
Pay through sales tax
or property tax
As the spokesman for the Citizen’s Committee, Deaver has been making the rounds among several groups and organizations before next Tuesday to talk about the need for the half-cent sales tax. Meanwhile, Leet has been speaking with individuals and groups in the Kenmare area. Both men have been concerned about the lack of widespread information about the county measure, but Leet explained Ward County is prohibited by law from advertising.
“Finally, our committee received donations from the private sector for this,” he said, adding that newspaper and radio ads are currently running to promote the sales tax.
As part of their message, Leet and Deaver emphasize that whether or not the measure passes, the county will be forced to proceed with the necessary construction and renovations. “I don’t think people realize just how much the county takes care of,” said Leet. “If this doesn’t pass, the county will go ahead on these projects in small increments and add the costs to property taxes.”
Given the projections that Ward County’s population will continue to grow and place higher demands on county services, voters have the opportunity to influence the county’s direction on these projects when they go to the polls Tuesday.
For Fjeldahl, a property and business owner himself, the choice is clear. “We would be collecting from a broader spectrum of people in our county, rather than just from a group of property owners,” he said. “The issues of the jail and roads are something we cannot ignore. If we do not address these issues through this tax, then we will have to address them through property taxes, and I know people don’t like that.”