Ward County lowers taxes in final 2020 budget

Cash cushion gives taxpayers soft landing

Ward County taxpayers should see a sizable decrease in the county portion of their 2020 property taxes.

The Ward County Commission on Tuesday approved a $57.45 million budget with an estimated levy of 61.82 mills. The owner of a $200,000 home would pay $556.38, or about $101 less than this year. The tax on an average quarter of farmland would decline about $68 to $274.

“Our cash on hand is unusual and definitely made an impact on the tax,” County Auditor Devra Smestad said. “I don’t know that we will have that next year.”

To help guard against drastic tax fluctuations, the commission included a new stabilization fund in the 2020 budget. The $123,000 budgeted for the fund is small, but commissioners felt it necessary to help manage a transition to a new pay plan.

The 2020 budget provides a 1.5% cost-of-living increase and implements part of the pay plan.

The budget includes $1.2 million for tax revenue bonds and another $1 million for an interest and sinking fund, both necessary because sales tax collections are falling short of the amount needed to pay bonds on construction of the jail addition, courthouse renovations and county office building.

That has added 7.83 mills to the property tax. Smestad said plans are to refinance the bonds, which should cause those mills to go away in 2021.

The county will levy nearly $17 million in total for county government spending, plus another $2.8 million for other jurisdictions.

The $57.45 million in total spending includes $6.3 million to support other jurisdictions, which deal with interests such as senior programs or soil conservation.

Overall, the levy for other jurisdictions is down. The Souris River Joint Board, which oversees the flood protection project, saw the largest increase in its county funding, from $538,470 to $650,000.

The Ward County Weather Modification Board had its levy trimmed by the county commission from $73,000 this year to $31,000 in 2020. However, voters will be asked next June whether to continue cloud seeding, and if they decide to do so, the commission will look within its existing budget for any additional funds it might want to designate.

Commissioner John Pietsch suggested Tuesday that the commission take another look at the State Fair budget of $450,000 and consider trimming it to $350,000.

Commissioner Alan Walter objected to the suggestion.

“They have told us several times that there’s an $80 million impact to this community from that State Fair operation. I think we need to support it as much as we can,” he said.

“I don’t have a problem supporting it,” Pietsch responded, “but there are a lot of other things too that provide economic impact to our area but we don’t necessarily subsidize them.”

The commission decided to leave the fair levy as it stands in 2020 but review it next year for possible changes in 2021.

The commission also is seeking applicants to fill a county vacancy on the State Fair Board. The county’s advertisements for applicants in recent weeks have not generated a response. Application information can be found online at wardnd.com under the “How Do I” heading or contact the auditor’s office.