After some debate during a special meeting Wednesday, the Ward County Commission passed the second reading of a 1/2 cent sales tax ballot measure to be used for a new office building, Ward County Courthouse remodeling, Ward County Jail expansion, and infrastructure needs. The language used for the measure, to be voted on Nov. 5, was also passed.
Estimated costs are $15.3 million for the office building, $10.5 million for the jail expansion, $3.5 million for the courthouse renovation, and $10 million for infrastructure needs. The total estimated cost of the four projects is $39.3 million.
If approved by voters on the November ballot, the sales tax would begin Jan. 1, 2013, and expire Dec. 31, 2022, unless all necessary funds are collected earlier.
Don Davison, an architect with JLG Architects, gave the commission and building needs committee an update on architectural plans. After several judges expressed concerns about the courthouse remodeling plans at the last special meeting, Davison met with them to discuss several issues.
Among the issues was the adequacy of the juvenile court in the basement. There is no space for attorneys to consult with their clients, courtroom access is difficult, and there is no private toilet for drug testing purposes.
The judges also took exception to the elimination of courtroom 100, which is used for initial appearances.
"That was something I did on my own, and I have no issue with leaving that in place," Davison said. "I didn't realize how they used that for appearances of inmates or whatever. And if that's a good space because it's close to the door and it's closed and secure, I have no issue with leaving that function in its current capacity."
It was felt court administration space and the Clerk of Courts area were also not adequate.
Davison said he would be doing a reevaluation of the entire courthouse to try and address the needs of all the departments that would remain there after a new office building is finished.
Davison also mentioned he would be working with a corrections specialist from Minneapolis on the jail expansion plans to make sure he doesn't miss any details since jails have special construction needs.
Davison expected to have all the plans complete by the end of September.
When asked about a timeline for the various projects, Davison said assuming voters pass the sales tax in November, construction on the new office building could begin by the end of summer next year, and would take approximately 1 to 1 1/2 years. The courthouse remodeling project could then begin in around two years barring any unforeseen delays.
Attention then turned to the second reading of the 1/2 cent sales tax ordinance and the exact language to be used for the ballot question.
There was some debate as to whether the commission should try to fund all four projects at once or just some of the projects at first. Commissioner Bruce Christianson felt the sales tax had the best chance of passing if they only asked for funding for the new building at first. His reasoning was voters might balk at being asked to pay close to $40 million for everything rather than just $15.3 million for the new office building.
"With a $40 million question in front of the general public, I think the first reaction is going to be hold on here a minute. And I don't think we'll be successful," Christianson said. "I want to see our space needs addressed, I want them resolved. And I think that's the best way in order to get them resolved."
Commissioner Jerome Gruenberg said he didn't agree with Christianson's assessment. He said people are tired of a tax ending, only to have the government ask to extend it for something else.
"People are tired of that," Gruenberg said. "I think we're better off to be straightforward and say this is what we need and vote on it once and when it's done it's done."
Commissioner Carroll Erickson said he was concerned about the prisoner situation at Ward County Jail, which is already running at maximum capacity much of the time.
Committee member Orlin Backes said he was originally in favor of voting on the entire package at once, but after speaking with the public he changed his mind. He noted the City of Minot and the school district have needs as well, and he worried, like Christianson, that asking for everything all at once would be too much for the public to approve.
"When you talk to people they tell you there's all kinds of needs. The city has needs, the county has needs, the school has needs," Backes said. "And I think it's going to be more difficult to get a whole project through with all the things."
Instead, he said the new building and courthouse renovation should be tied together so the county's immediate space needs can be taken care of with as little sticker shock by the public as possible.
After some thought, Christianson agreed with Backes that the courthouse remodel and office building should be tied together, and offered an amendment to the sales tax that would delete the jail expansion and infrastructure portions.
There was further discussion, and committee member Chuck Leet said the majority of the people he has spoken with said they preferred to vote on the whole project so the county wouldn't come back in a couple years asking for another vote on additional projects.
"And also the big thing that I am hearing is that the success of this passing is solely dependent on how good of a job we do of informing the public of the needs," Leet said.
Since the county wouldn't be allowed to spend any money on advertisements or brochures to pass out, one idea was to host public tours of the courthouse so guides could point out specific areas where the needs are greatest. It was felt giving people a firsthand look at just how much of a space crunch there is in the courthouse would help sway public opinion in support of the project.
Other ideas were to publicize that the county already pays over $326,677 annually in rent from the general fund, and that no single transaction would be subject to more than $12.50 under this tax. If a person did pay in excess of $12.50 under the sales tax, they could obtain a refund of the excess tax payment by filing a request for refund with forms provided by the North Dakota Office of State Tax Commissioner.
When a vote on Christianson's amendment was held, it failed 4-1, with commissioners John Fjeldahl, Gruenberg, Erickson and Jack Nybakken voting against it, and Christianson voting for it.
A vote on the second reading of the ordinance with all four projects included was then passed 4-1, with Christianson the lone "no" vote.
It was then time to vote on the exact ballot wording, which stipulated the 1/2 percent sales tax would begin on Jan. 1, 2013, and expire on Dec. 31, 2022, unless all necessary funds are collected earlier. No exact limit on the amount the sales tax could raise was included because the estimated construction costs could change over time.
The ballot wording passed 4-1, with Christianson again being the lone "no" vote.
"Even though I did not support the ordinance or the wording of it, I will support the majority outcome of the commission," Christianson said. "I just wanted to make that clear."
"So there won't be anymore 'no' votes then?" Fjeldahl asked, as everyone in the room erupted into laughter.
"I don't know about that," Christianson replied. "You're still going to hear my opinion."
The next space needs meeting was set for Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 9 a.m. in the Commission Chambers of the courthouse.