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3/11/2009 – Editorials

By Richard Peterson

I’m pretty concerned with what’s happening in our state. State government is awash in money. The federal stimulus funds coming to North Dakota are apparently going to be diverted to cover some investments the state had already planned to make with state funds.

That will allow the conservatives in the State Legislature to sock even more money away for use on a rainy day.

But that rainy day is here. County government is struggling mightily to meet its obligations. Benson County is going to have $1.5 million in federal funds in its account but it can’t draw anything out of that fund because it does not have the 20% local match money.

Most townships are flat broke. They can’t even afford to gravel their roads. They can’t pay their snow removal bills. Those townships in the western part of the county had huge snow removal bills and they still don’t qualify for the meager program put forth by the governor.

Sen. Ryan Taylor’s bill to provide a little more funding for the townships might not pass because of conservative opposition, bolstered by urban support in the legislature.

Three townships in Benson County are going to vote next week on increasing property taxes in those townships because the levy simply does not cover the expenses of keeping up township roads. Many more townships will have to follow their lead.

It’s sickening. We need property tax relief and will get some, but a bunch of money is being wasted on income tax relief, something we don’t need. Sales tax relief would also be welcome, but no, the conservatives in charge of the State Legislature hate the fairest tax of all, the income tax, and they’ll do anything they can to whittle it down or get rid of it.

The mechanics of determining which townships will be eligible for township snow removal funds is severely flawed and Benson County will suffer as a result.

Speaking of suffering, Benson County lost about a million dollars in federal stimulus money because of a dispute between the ND Department of Transportation and the Spirit Lake Nation. For more than 30 years the tribe has had a materials tax in place, similar to a reservation-wide sales tax on materials used in construction projects. In the past the tribe has waived this tax, but in a letter to the Benson County commissioners, Tribal Chairman Myra Pearson stated that the tax will not be waived in the future. The ND Department of Transportation (DOT) refuses to pay the tax. In fact, it refuses to let any project go forward on the reservation unless the tax on that project is waived. The DOT would not even allow Benson County to pay the tax, which would have probably been between $16,000 to $20,000. The county would gladly have paid the tax to get the million dollars, but the DOT said no.

I sent an e-mail and a letter to Gov. John Hoeven on March 3, the day I found out the DOT had set a March 6 deadline, asking him to intervene with the DOT and allow Benson County to pay the tax. He did not respond and the money which would have come to the county will go somewhere else.

There’s a large pot of federal money which will be spent on roads which are serving as dams on the reservation. Will the tribe waive its materials tax on these projects? Will the DOT refuse to let the projects go forward if the tribe does not waive the tax? Lives could be at stake in this case instead of just kicking Benson County around. There are many millions of dollars of federal money involved in this project. I’m interested to see how this plays out.

The DOT is also pressing for regionalization of the transportation system in North Dakota. People who want a ride will call an 800 number in Devils Lake and they’ll get a ride, according to the plan.

I know the commissioners listen when people have a complaint. I have no confidence that complaints will be addressed under this proposed system. Local control will be gone.

The worst part of it is that if there is a pilot program, that will be it. We will be stuck with it for good. And it’ll be expanded across the state because there will be no going back to our current program.
But it will look very nice on an organizational chart.

That’s enough griping for this week. I want to tell you that I’m very pleased Bouret’s Dam on the Sheyenne River in Twin Tree Township will probably be rebuilt. This dam backs up water about two miles to a place called Irish Mike’s or The Springs. It’s a very scenic boat ride. That water behind the dam provides fishing and recreation for humans and habitat for wildlife, especially in dry periods. During the summertime there’s only a trickle of water in the river below the dam. But behind the dam there’s lots of water. Fixing that dam will keep it there.

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