Ward County Commission trims budget, looks for more cuts
Ward County Commissioners trimmed more than $384,000 from the proposed 2024 county budget Tuesday and plan to look for another $260,000 to cut before finalizing the budget next week.
Cuts were made to jail staffing and funds provided to entities outside the functions of county government.
The commission eliminated two new correctional officer positions, which eliminated $175,000 from the budget. Commissioner Jason Olson suggested cutting the positions because they might never be filled.
“I just don’t see any reason to be levying the mill on taxpayers for positions that we basically know we are not going to be able to fill,” he said.
Jail Commander Paul Olthoff said the positions are needed but agreed they will be hard to fill based on eight open positions currently.
“We haven’t hired anybody in over two months. We haven’t been able to get applicants,” Olthoff said. He noted if the jail should be able to find enough officers to fill 10 positions before the end of 2024, there likely would be enough salary savings in having the positions vacant to pay for the cost without taxing additional for them.
Commission Chairman John Fjeldahl proposed budget cuts based on comments made at a budget hearing by members of the public who questioned the county’s spending on entities such as the North Dakota State Fair and Assiniboine River Basin Initiative.
Fjeldahl suggested removing $34,800 for Project BEE, a nonprofit that works with the homeless; $7,500 for the Assiniboine initiative; $60,000 for Visit Minot; and reducing the State Fair from $400,000 to $300,000, which is $60,000 less than this year’s funding.
“Maybe the point should be taken that these aren’t really a required function of county government, or we’re getting a little out of our lane, I think. These are nonprofits, or however you want to name them, and they’re becoming taxing entities,” Fjeldahl said. “Maybe we have gone too far with some of this.”
Regarding the Assiniboine initiative, Fjeldahl said he supports the concept of the international organization that maintains an overview of the larger basin that includes the Souris River and provides information. However, he noted the county already works with other Souris River initiatives.
“It’s just taking a re-look at what’s necessary and what isn’t,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Rostad challenged the cuts to the State Fair, which brings in tax dollars, and Project BEE, which has taken on the Broadway Circle project.
Commissioner Shelly Weppler also said she has been impressed with the work of Visit Minot in promoting rural Ward County.
“There is a great benefit to be received by that collaborative effort,” she said.
“I think sometimes we end up becoming the fundraising entity for some organizations. I think if we had better times, we could probably do that,” Commissioner Howard “Bucky” Anderson said. “We are in a situation now where, I think, we need to hold the line on last year, and any cuts we can make, we need to make.”
The commission voted 4-1 to support the cuts, with Rostad voting against.
The changes brought the mill levy to .71 of a mill more than this year’s budget, or a $3.19 increase for each $100,000 of home value. To eliminate any increase, the commission sought to find about another $260,000 in cuts.
The commission made a small change to reduce about $7,000 by forgoing the 6% salary increase in the budget for commissioners.
Commissioners discussed other areas of the budget, from travel to office supply expenses and highways to parks, in looking for other areas to trim.
“The only other place for significant changes in the budget will be salaries and compensation,” Anderson said. The budget proposes 2.5% in salary schedule step increases and a 3.5% cost-of-living increase. Anderson suggested looking at reducing the overall increase by a percent, which would save $225,000, according to cost estimates of the auditor’s office.
“I think we’re walking right on the edge right now with our 2½ and 3½ percent increases,” Rostad said, referencing the need to keep up with market wages. “Or we’re just going to continue to run short on employees.”
Olson agreed, suggesting the commission look instead at areas such as the property tax going for highways. He mentioned the shift of the county’s half percent sales tax to highways next year that will provide an extra $6 million for that department.
Highway engineer Dana Larsen said the property tax is needed to keep up with maintenance, while the intent of the sales tax is to pay for road project priorities that have needed funding.
The commission will discuss the budget again at its Oct. 3 meeting. The county has until Oct. 10 to finalize the budget.