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Water board members' pay surprises Grand Forks County leaders

Earlier this month, Grand Forks County commissioners were surprised to find out that the county water board receives a monthly health insurance allowance.

Commissioners said they know the compensation is legal, and they know the water board does good work. But the question remained: Who oversees the water board's decisions?

At their Jan. 7 meeting, the county commissioners learned that the water board receives a $515.20 health insurance allowance each month, in addition to being paid $110 per meeting, for generally two meetings per month.

"We were quite surprised by that," Commissioner Cynthia Pic said.

The commissioners had some concern about water board members being appointed by the county commission and having their mill levy approved by the commission, but then being able to spend that money as the water board sees fit.

"I think it's just one of those deals that... really doesn't give the commission any control," Commissioner John Schmisek said. Although it's legal, he said, "It's the question: is this really the way it should be?"

The commission requested more information on the water board to review at its next meeting, Tuesday.

"Those are taxpayer dollars, so it would be good to know," Commissioner Diane Knauf said in the Jan. 7 meeting.

Separate entity

The commission had first asked to see all county boards' compensation rates because previously the county weed board had asked to have its compensation raised from $65 per meeting to $90 per meeting. The weed board meets once a month, and its members' compensation must be approved by the county commission.

Unlike county weed boards, county water boards across North Dakota do not have to have their budget specifics approved by county commissions because water resource districts are separate tax entities, said Peter Welte, Grand Forks County state's attorney told the Herald. However, the budgets of the weed board and other county boards are part of county commission's budget, Welte said.

Water board member Richard Axvig said water boards are governed under the North Dakota State Water Commission.

"We're the local level of water government," Axvig explained. "The purpose of a water board is to administer water laws to the county from the state."

The board's work is separate from city water and rural water systems, Axvig said. Much of the board's responsibility is flood control, and the Grand Forks County water board also operates the Larimore and Fordville dams.

"We wear a lot of hats," Axvig said.

He added that by state law, water boards are required to have their budgets audited each year.

Other counties

Jeff Eslinger, spokesman for the North Dakota Association of Counties, said county water boards along the Red River likely stay busier than most other boards because of the river's frequent flooding.

Eslinger hadn't heard of any water board members in the state receiving health insurance, but he said the association of counties doesn't ask about health insurance on its survey of all of the state's county boards.

Of Grand Forks County's neighbors on the Red River, the Cass and Traill county water board members do not receive health insurance, but two water board members in Walsh County do, according to spokespeople of those county boards.

The Walsh County board stopped offering health insurance a year ago, but two members of the three-person board were grandfathered in and still receive health insurance.

"It's not unusual at all" for Grand Forks' water board members to receive a health insurance allowance, Welte said.

Grand Forks County commissioners said they would discuss the issue at Tuesday's meeting after receiving more information.

"If there'll be any action taken, it would be at the time we look at the budget for the county," in the summer, Pic said.

Board compensation varies

Other than the water board, Grand Forks County boards generally have very similar compensation levels.

• Grand Forks County Water Board: $110 per meeting, two meetings per month. Mileage is paid. Health insurance allowance of $515.20.

• Traill County Water Board: $250 base pay per month. Usually two meetings per month.

• Cass County Water Districts: $125 per meeting, three meetings per month. Mileage is paid.

• Walsh County Water Board: $135 per meeting, meets every Tuesday. Health insurance allowance varies by members.

• Grand Forks County Emergency Management Board: $50 per meeting, one meeting per quarter.

• Grand Forks County Planning and Zoning Commission: $50 per meeting, one meeting per month. Mileage is paid.

• Grand Forks Regional Airport Authority: no compensation as required by law. One meeting per month. Mileage is paid.

• Grand Forks County Weed Board: $65 per meeting, one meeting per month. Mileage is paid.

• Grand Forks city Planning and Zoning Commission: no compensation. One meeting per month. The city controls zoning a few miles outside of city limits in rural parts of the county.

Source: Grand Forks County.

Call Haley at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to