Ward County commissioners held a conference call meeting Thursday morning with Ron Rauschenberger, the governor's chief of staff, to discuss funding assistance from the state for the upcoming renovations to the court house and additional office and jail space.
Ward County has suffered significant impact from the oil growth in surrounding counties without having oil revenue itself to offset the associated costs. This argument is why the commissioners feel justified in asking for state assistance.
"The reason for the call, as you're probably aware, Ron, is that we recently had passed a sales tax here in the county to fund a jail expansion, and a new county office building, new juvenile expansion, as well as remodeling the sheriff's office and new expansion for court facilities here in the county," explained commission chairman John Fjeldahl to state the intention of the call. "We want to see if we have an opportunity here to get some help from the governor's office."
The new county sales tax to fund the program, approved by voters earlier this month, will be the primary funding for the project but it was made clear that the county needs the facilities now.
"We've got it broken down into three different areas," said Don Davison of JLG Architects, who is designing the projects, on the estimated costs. "The office building we've got tagged as $15.3 million, ten and a half million for the jail expansion, three and a half million we've got budgeted for the renovation to the courthouse to accommodate those court dates and juvenile detention. One of the things that wasn't mentioned was that there's $10 million in there for county infrastructure needs."
"We're running at max capacity and we need the space," said Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski. "It would be nice to have had it last year, but it is what it is." Kukowski brought up the fact that the county works as a regional hub and that, despite being maxed out, has had convicts from other counties thrusted on them anyway.
"We've got a growing court presence here," said commissioner Jerome Gruenberg. "In 2005, we did a survey and the courts are using 57 percent of the court facility at that time, and now they're talking about growing and bringing more judges here." He mentioned the court system of Ward County is the system used for all of northwestern North Dakota. "We feel the state is forcing this on us."
"You guys are a little unique compared to other areas," said Rauschenberger, reflecting the overall theme for the needs, and recognized that Minot was the "hub city" for the entire region. Rauschenberger is a former Kenmare businessman and was one of the original member of Minot's MAGIC Fund screening committee.
"A lot of these costs shouldn't be born, we thought, by property owners because a lot of this influx" of needs for services is because of the population boom, said Fjeldahl, on why the county had decided to go with a sales tax for funding in the first place, rather than raise property taxes.
Ward County makes only about $100,000 from oil production, which is minimal and not in a top tier to be recognized and to receive the benefits as an oil producing state. Many Bakken wells are just off county lines, though, so county roads and services are still impacted.
Nothing was decided in the meeting regarding actual funding from the state, but Rauschenberger assured the commissioners that he would speak with Gov. Jack Dalyrymple that day regarding the issue. Rauschenberger also advised that the county speak with area state legislators about the issue so that they can work it into the state budget, which has already been printed for the year. The budget is a recommendation, he said, and it is amended throughout the legislative session.
"You can't go to state without a plan," commissioner Caroll Erickson said of the process. "The important thing now is that they've been notified (of the problems), and are asking questions." The next steps will include also looking at what federal funds might be available to the county needs.