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Ward County to consider property tax to back up sales tax

County to consider mill levy fund for bonds

File Photo The Ward County office building, opened at the end of 2015, is being paid for with long-term bonding.

Ward County property owners may be taxed to supplement sales tax collections being used to pay for recent building projects.

The Ward County Commission, at the suggestion of Auditor Devra Smestad, agreed Tuesday to create a sinking fund of three mills in the preliminary budget for 2020 to back up any potential shortfall in sales tax. The inclusion means it will be a topic of discussion by the commission as it considers a final budget in coming months. Three mills adds about $1 million to the budget.

Smestad told commissioners the monthly sales tax revenues have decreased to $300,000 to $400,000 a month, instead of the $566,000 estimated to be the six-month average.

“So we will definitely be below our collections to make our next payments,” Smestad said. The county has begun paying off bonds of nearly $79 million on the county office building and jail expansion.

The commission also agreed to use $244,547 of the savings from switching to a new employee health insurance plan to cover a deficit in the 911 emergency program. The option to take the money from the 911 depreciation account would have required the county levy additional money in 2020 to replenish the account, which is to be used to fund the local share of a new statewide siren and communications system.

File photo A $37 million jail renovation with an expansion and new sheriff’s office was completed last year.

Larry Haug, 911 manager, said there was a substantial under-estimation of revenue in previous budgets. Of the $690,000 that the budget is short, the city has covered 65%. The county’s amount is the remainder needed to fully fund the 2019 budget and avoid a negative balance at the end of the year.

“We will not spend more than we should. It’s just that we did not levy enough to cover the expenses. It’s not like we got some surprise major expenses. This is just an under-estimation of we should have levied,” he said.

“All of the budgeting in the past has been done based on previous budgets, not on actual revenues and expenses,” Smestad added. “If we get this taken care of this year, we will be on track to do it properly moving forward.”

The commission also voted 4-1 to join a nationwide opioid lawsuit. The Motley Rice, Ferrer Poirot Wansbrough & Fears Machawati consortium that is litigating the case includes firms based in Texas and North Carolina. The consortium’s North Dakota counsel is attorney and former legislator Mac Schneider, Fargo.

Commissioner Jim Rostad, who voted against entering the litigation, explained later that he believes opioids have beneficial uses in medicine. Where addiction occurs, there is personal responsibility associated with either seeking help or engaging in abuse that leads to costs to society, he said.

In other business, highway engineer Dana Larsen reported on the use of oil-field brine for dust control, approved by the commission last year. He said it has not been as effective as the commercial chlorides typically used for dust control but it does have a significant impact. However, the county’s supply of the brine from a well near Glenburn has been limited.

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