Elmer Jesme counties hear about new funding options

ND makes more money accessible to counties

Jill Schramm/MDN County commissioners listen to an update from the North Dakota Association of Counties at the Elmer Jesme Conference of Counties in Minot Monday. From left are William Stanley and Arnie Langehaug of Renville County, John Pietsch of Ward County and Armann Anderson of McHenry County.

North Dakota counties will have access to more state funds, particularly for infrastructure projects, in the 2021-23 biennium.

That was the message of representatives from the North Dakota Association of Counties to area county officials at their Elmer Jesme Conference of Counties meeting in Minot Monday.

The 2021 Legislature focused on the current $8 billion in the state’s oil-tax savings fund, the Legacy Fund, in seeking out more dollars for the state and political subdivisions, NDAC Executive Director Terry Traynor said.

“That money is all invested. But very little of it is invested in North Dakota, and what the Legislature said is 10% of the principal has to get invested in North Dakota, and 40% of that 10% has to be invested in local government. So they are actively looking for building projects, courthouses, shops, roads, bridges, sewer and water, schools to invest that money in going forward,” Traynor said.

In addition, the Legislature placed $50 million in Legacy Fund interest earnings in a low-interest revolving loan fund in the Bank of North Dakota for infrastructure projects, he said.

Jill Schramm/MDN Ward County Commissioner Jim Rostad makes a comment at the Elmer Jesme Conference of Counties meeting in Minot Monday as Terry Traynor, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Counties, listens at right.

Another bill allows counties to use their capital improvements levy for roads and bridges as well as for building construction projects. Counties also can borrow, using the levy to make payments. The length of the loan period has been increased from five years to 20 years.

“So they have given us more flexibility to borrow. And there’s more opportunity to borrow. I know counties aren’t really big into financing, especially roads,” Traynor said. “But that is an opportunity.”

Cash funds coming out of the legislative session were more limited, he said. The so-called Prairie Dog bill of the previous session that was to provide an ongoing funding mechanism for political subdivisions was hampered by a lack of funds for the 2021-23 biennium.

“We are hopeful, especially now the way the price of oil looks, we are going to be seeing Prairie Dog two years from now. But that doesn’t help right now,” Traynor said.

On the other hand, counties are slated to get $13 million from the $60 million the Legislature transferred from Legacy Fund interest earnings into the Highway Distribution Fund. Legislators transferred the money to avoid a proposed gas tax increase. The $60 million is equivalent to revenue estimated to be generated from a 6.5-cent gas tax hike, Traynor said.

The Legislature also appropriated $135 million to match federal discretionary highway funds, Traynor said. A portion of that money will be available to counties.

Townships will receive $20 million in additional state aid, Traynor said. Of that amount, $10 million will be divided among the organized and unorganized townships at about $6,000 each. The remaining $10 million will be allocated based on the regular distribution formula that uses the number of road miles. The distributions will be made in August.

Townships having difficulty coming up with the local match to access funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster repairs also will be able to get help from $750,000 in state funds.

A controversial bill involving super long truck loads, called road trains, on highways within the state passed in an amended form, Traynor said. The North Dakota Department of Transportation can conduct a pilot project, but counties have veto authority within their jurisdictions.

One pilot project mentioned as a possibility is in Burke County, where a Bowbells grain operation takes organic commodities by truck from Canada and ships them by rail.

Burke County Auditor Jeanine Jensen said the county has received no information from the NDDOT at this point. She said the commission would have questions about a pilot project because U.S. Highway 52 hasn’t been widened in that area and already handles significant truck traffic. That section of Highway 52 is scheduled for passing lane improvements in 2022.

Traynor also encouraged counties to hang onto their federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars until more is learned about how the money can be spent. Counties and cities have received half of their allotments, which are based on population. The remaining money will be available next year.

Local governments must obligate the money by Dec. 31, 2024, and all the COVID-19 pandemic dollars must be spent by 2026. Among areas where money can be spent include public health, mitigating economic impacts, replacing lost public revenue, premium pay for essential workers or covering other expenses related to COVID-19 response. Traynor said the federal government expects to finalize its rules for the money in August.


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