N.D. lawmakers question marina costs, high bids for park projects
BISMARCK – A request by the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department for permission to spend money to operate a marina on Lake Sakakawea purchased with public funds last year ran into some rough waters on Wednesday.
As recommended in the governor’s budget, the 2013 Legislature appropriated funds to buy Captain Kit’s Marina at Lake Sakakawea State Park from its private owners, despite misgivings from some lawmakers. The Parks and Recreation Department paid about $746,000 for the marina, less than the $775,000 that was appropriated, department Director Mark Zimmerman said.
During Wednesday’s meeting of the Legislature’s Budget Section, some lawmakers bristled at Zimmerman’s request for authority to spend $130,000 in special funds to operate the marina.
Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, asked why the operating expenses weren’t anticipated during the regular session.
Sheila Peterson, director of fiscal management for the state Office of Management and Budget, said it wasn’t known at the time whether the state would be able to negotiate a sale with the owners.
“And so we just weren’t thinking far enough ahead,” she said.
The Budget Section ultimately voted 33-4 to approve the marina spending authority, along with spending authority related to three Outdoor Heritage Fund grants. Zimmerman said the $130,000 will come from state parks revenue and will pay for seasonal staff, supplies and other operating expenses.
Lawmakers also questioned but voted 24-12 to approve a parks department request to increase its spending authority by $298,000 to cover construction bids that came in higher than expected on three projects.
The projects involve a campsite expansion at Lewis and Clark State Park, an administrative office at Fort Stevenson State Park and a campground at Lake Sakakawea State Park.
“We see these as ones that are really needed” in the western half of the state where camping is on the rise, Zimmerman said.
Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, said he opposed the request when it came through the state Emergency Commission and still opposed it on Wednesday because not all lawmakers and citizens are represented in the Budget Section, which consists of 44 of the Legislature’s 141 members.
“There is a whole lot of legislators that don’t have an opportunity to speak their voice,” he said.
Zimmerman said the parks department tried to scale back the projects to bring down the bids, but he also noted that the construction estimates were prepared for the governor’s budget 18 months before bids were let.
“Those costs have certainly increased,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he would have opposed the extra spending had it involved general fund dollars, but he supported it because it will come from parks revenue.
“If we wait, it’s going to cost more,” he said.
In other business, OMB Director Pam Sharp reported that based on preliminary figures for February, the state’s general fund is projected to have an ending balance of $457 million by the end of the biennium on June 30, 2015. That’s down $34 million from last month’s projection.
Sales tax revenue fell short of projections for the second consecutive month. It was $12.6 million short in January and $16.4 million short in February. Sharp said it’s difficult to say why collections are down, adding OMB won’t be able to dig into the sales tax receipts until quarterly reports are filed.
Total sales tax revenue for the biennium to date is still running 1.5 percent ahead of the legislative forecast, and total general fund revenue is running ahead by $117 million, or 6.3 percent, Sharp reported.