County approves budget

Jill Schramm/MDN Ward County Veterans Service Officer John Crosby works in his office Tuesday.

A $53 million Ward County budget approved by commissioners Tuesday includes no property-tax increase for 2019 but adds a second part-time veterans service officer.

Commissioners shifted money within the budget to fund another veterans officer while keeping the levy nearly steady. The tax on a $200,000 home in the county would come in just cents under this past year’s $659. The tax on a quarter of land remains about $343. Actual tax changes will vary depending on any changes also occurring in a property’s valuation. Farmland values overall are unchanged for 2019.

On a 3-2 vote, commissioners added $75,000 to the Veterans Service Office to staff another officer at 32 hours a week. John Crosby, the current veterans service officer, also is employed 32 hours a week, and requested additional help to shorten wait times for appointments and allow for more county outreach.

Commissioner Shelly Weppler moved to offset the cost of the new position with cuts to tax levies for the Ward County Water Resource Board, Souris River Joint Board, Ward County Soil Conservation, North Dakota State Fair, Weather Modification and Assiniboine River Basin Initiative.

Weppler said having an Air Force base in the county contributes to the workload, particular since active duty personnel looking to exit the military now are being encouraged to visit with the veterans service office before exiting. Despite the presence of the base, she said, Ward County is not staffed to the degree of other county veterans service offices.

“We are the most deficit agency in the state,” she said of staffing.

Commissioner John Fjeldahl said he’s concerned there are issues in the office that contribute to the appointment wait times that aren’t being addressed.

“I want to be sure we are doing this right instead of just hiring another person to address something that maybe should be done in another way,” he said.

On the issue of whether appointments are too lengthy, her investigation provided no clear answer regarding how long an appointment should last because of the variables involved, Weppler said.

Commission Chairman Alan Walter wanted to consider other part-time options with a new employee or making the current officer full-time instead. Fjeldahl also resisted another 32-hour employee based on comments from veterans and former department employees about how the office is run.

Weppler responded she wants the department to be able to serve the veteran community.

“We have a director who has been trying to tell us we need more support to handle the numbers that are here. By us not having that support to handle the numbers, you are not going to get any better down the road,” she said of the office. Even with a second officer, she added, the county should continue to watch to ensure appointments become more timely.

“Right now we are three months behind and we are trying to say, ‘manage time better’ to help more veterans. I have had comments from a few veterans who are very happy with what’s going on there. I have heard comments some are not,” she said. “The loudest voices are the ones who get heard, not always necessarily the majority.”

“This has been an issue that’s been brewing for a long time and I don’t think we addressed it and I don’t think this is the best way to address it,” Fjeldahl said.

Weppler and Louser, both veterans, stated another part-time officer is the way to address it. Walter, also a veteran, disagreed. Walter and Fjeldahl voted against adding the position. Commissioner Jim Rostad cast his vote with Weppler and Louser after pausing to give it thought.

“I am just ecstatic that we can get another person in here to assist our veterans,” Crosby said after the meeting. “I really look forward to getting more benefits to more people.”

He said another officer will enable the department to do more outreach and have a veterans service officer in the county administration building in Minot from Monday through Friday. Currently, the office is staffed only with an administrative assistant on Fridays.

Statistics for Ward County show 7,282 veterans live in the county, which Crosby said doesn’t include widows or any active duty military who might seek assistance through the Veterans Service Office.

Prior to the vote on the veterans service position, technology director Jason Blowers informed the commission that $15,000 for computer purchases can be cut from the technology budget because those purchases are being made in 2018. The commission chose to subtract that $15,000 from the $75,000 in cuts to the various boards to fund the veterans service officer. That reduced the percentage cut to each board to about 2.7 percent. The total levy for the six affected boards after the cuts is about $2.13 million.

The commission voted 4-1, with Fjeldahl opposing, to approve the final mill levy of $23.3 million, which is down $461,637 from the 2018 budget. The estimated mill levy is 73.2 mills, down from 73.23 mills.

In other business, the commission:

– accepted new bylaws for the county weather modification board as rewritten by the board with the help of the state’s attorney. The board sought the ability to accept or reject the commission’s board appointees but lacked legal authority to include that particular change in the bylaws.

– agreed to advertise for two openings on the North Dakota State Fair Board. Current board members Karen Hennessey and Kandi Mikkelson have applied but the commission opted to advertise before making appointments.

– approved a five-foot road raise on County Road 9A several miles south of Berthold to address flooding.