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City of Minot’s legislative watch prioritizes water project bonding

City prioritizes bonding for water projects

Flood protection and bonding bills top of the list of 2021 legislation being watched by the City of Minot in the state Capitol.

Shane Goettle, Minot’s assistant city attorney for legislative affairs, reported to the council Monday on bills of interest, including some on which the mayor, certain council members or city staff have testified during committee hearings.

Goettle said he is tracking and monitoring just over 150 bills and resolutions.

“Every aspect of city governance and responsibility is touched by one bill or another,” he said. “We prioritize, for example, flood protection and NAWS, and almost not a day goes by without me talking to somebody about where we’re at with that.

“The big idea of this session is bonding for essential infrastructure, and that leads to the funding for flood protection. In the past we’ve been funded entirely out of what comes into the Natural Resources Trust Fund from (oil) extraction tax,” Goettle said. “This time around, the idea is to bond for large-scale projects like Minot flood protection.”

House Bill 1431 contains the flood protection funding.

“It’s going to pass. The question is how much bonding would we do for other things besides this (flood control),” Goettle said. “But I think we’re in really good shape with this as really one of the top priorities for bonding.”

In HB 1431, the state would bond for $798.5 million and repay debt with Legacy Fund earnings. The bill provides $74.5 million for the Mouse River Enhanced Flood Protection Project. That amount includes the $30 million not allocated this biennium because lower oil tax collections restricted the state’s ability to provide the dollars.

Goettle said that some legislators have viewed the completion of the first phases of the project to protect 62% of the flood-impacted area as an endpoint rather than a milestone. The $193 million previously appropriated by the Legislature was to meet that milestone.

“We’re kind of finding a need to change the conversation and look at the whole project,” Goettle said. A legislative committee was presented with options for completing the MREFPP in seven, 10 or 20 years, although seven would be difficult, he said.

“The bookends are really, I think, 10 year and 20 years, and maybe something more modest like a 12-year or 13- or 15-year plan,” Goettle said.

A $74.5 million appropriation would keep the project on track for completion in 20 years.

The City of Minot also is advocating for $9 million from HB 1431 for a career and technical center that is being developed as part of the city’s resilience program.

Goettle said he expects no committee action on HB 1431 until more legislative decisions are made about which direction to go with bonding.

Mayor Shaun Sipma said HB 1431 doesn’t include low-interest bonding for the local share of flood control projects.

“The appetite, as we’ve understood, isn’t quite there to really open up that avenue, just yet. So we’ve shared that conversation with a lot of legislators down there that this is something that we’re not only going to need but Fargo is going to need and other municipalities are going to need,” Sipma said.

“Right now bonds in the market are attractive,” Goettle added. “But long term, the debt load that you will need to amass in order to take care of the local share is a concern that we’ve got to be talking to policy makers about.”

Regarding the Northwest Area Water Supply Project, Goettle said there is money in the State Water Commission for water projects that includes NAWS. There also has been discussion on who will ultimately own and manage the various pieces of NAWS.

Minot needs to control its water treatment plant that services NAWS but the water plant’s operation needs to be coordinated with other aspects of the project, Goettle said. However, he said it might be too early to discuss a possible NAWS Authority to govern the project.

Other bills the City of Minot is supporting include:

— Senate Bill 2139, which creates neighborhood zones with tax breaks for redevelopment.

— SB 2245, which provides $10 million to purchase assets and lay track at the intermodal facility in Minot.

Some of the bills opposed by the City of Minot were defeated in the House, including those that put restrictions on local taxing. Among bills remaining that are opposed include:

– HB 1372, freezes assessed residential values for lower income people with disabilities or who are older than 65.

– HB 1446, provides property tax credits on primary residences using Legacy Fund earnings.

– HB 1300, refunds excess special assessments paid when a fund balance is left. The bill passed the House but is opposed because of the difficulty and inequity created in attempting to refund, Goettle said.

– HB 1216, cuts salaries of elected officials and city managers if government restrictions are imposed that shut down businesses.

– HB 1165, allows residents of a city’s extra-territorial area to vote in city elections.

– HB 1138, allows individuals to bring civil action against the state and political subdivisions for free speech violations.

– HB 1222, allows structures that are nonconforming to their zones to be repaired or improved in certain situations.

– HB 1367, requires adoption of preliminary budgets by political subdivisions by July 10 of each year and creates the right of voter referral.

Minot City Manager Harold Stewart said he’s seen a concerning anti-government sentiment in state legislatures across the country. Increasingly, legislators lack a background in local government to understand how they operate, he said.

“This is one of the main reasons why I chose to leave Missouri, because they put some of these legislative pieces in place a long time ago. For example, that taxes can’t be raised unless it’s approved by the voters,” he said. “Missouri is just now starting to pay the consequences of that. When you have infrastructure and services that you can no longer afford to provide, you put it on the ballot for the voters and they say no, we have to present a balanced budget, which means we have to cut services.

“That creates a lot of disputes and discord and anger at the local level because there’s services that people want and now the city is no longer wanting to provide,” he added. “In my opinion, it’s a very dangerous trend, and if it persists, it’s going to be very difficult for local governments in North Dakota and across the country to continue to sustain themselves.”

All bills in the N.D. Legislature will be acted upon in their chamber of origin by the end of February, at which time those bills given approval will cross over to the other chamber for further consideration.

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