How much debt do North Dakota's biggest cities have?
A quick glance at a city's debt is a little like reading its palm. Whether it's a new airport terminal, new sewer lines or payments on an events center, a community's finances indicate what it finds important and where it's headed.
A Herald analysis of North Dakota's four largest cities shows that, as of Jan. 1, all carried more than $100 million in debt. Based on financial documents provided by those cities, Fargo's debt is by far the largest, exceeding $693 million when all bonds, loans and revenue notes are tallied up. Minot's tally of similar categories comes to more than $104 million. Grand Forks and Bismarck totals were roughly $154 million and $222 million, respectively.
Some of those numbers have since been adjusted slightly upward or downward across the course of the year, and it can be tough to get a precise, apples-to-apples comparison of each city's finances, as each provides financial documents that present or categorize debt differently.
But the numbers provided here tell each city's story, and are based on substantially similar kinds of debt. The facts behind those figures help sketch out each community's challenges and priorities—and where, years from now, each might be.
Grand Forks Budget Officer Matt Vatnsdal said the city of Grand Forks carried about $154.4 million in debt at the end of last year—counting various types of bonds and notes and not things like unpaid vacation time or pension liabilities.
That number includes $60.3 million in special assessment debt, much of which is for city expansion, City Administrator Todd Feland said. The city is growing outward, and continually needs more roads, sewer lines, streetlights and the like, which residents support through long-term payments collected over decades.
"If you weren't growing, you wouldn't have a lot of debt in that area," Feland said. "I don't think that's all bad—that's a sign that the city is growing."
Gov. Doug Burgum has his eye on numbers like those. In a May visit to the Herald, he said he prefers to see cities tackle "infill development," in which new buildings and residences spring up near the city's core. That means all the benefits of new construction, but a minimal addition to the local debt compared to, say, developing a new subdivision.
An example of such development is the new construction expected soon on Arbor Park, where a recent referendum on the park's future is expected to lead to a new, five-story condo and commercial building in the heart of Grand Forks' downtown. It comes with minimal costs to the city because roads and other infrastructure already are present.
Within that $154.4 million figure is $38.5 million on a revenue bond related to the Alerus Center. But even more is still to come, with tens of millions in debt expected to be added as the city draws on funding to build its new water treatment plant—a significant undertaking on the city's western edge.
Feland pointed out that plenty of projects are set to be paid off soon, including downtown development after the flood, the Alerus Center and the city's wastewater treatment plant. City debt, he said, is in a healthy place.
"I think that's on pace," he said.
According to documents provided by the city of Fargo, the city is carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in bond and note debt, which Finance Director Kent Costin says is because of Fargo's size.
The total bond and note debt the city carries comes to more than $693 million, including bonds, loans and notes as well as "tax increment revenue notes," which are not specifically identified in other cities' documents. City document summarizing "long-term debt" indicate the city has more than $400 million in "improvement bonds" debt, which are analogous to the payments on special assessment debt seen elsewhere. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said that number is a result of a significant surge in new growth in recent years—and he, like other city officials, said those debts are perfectly healthy. Like in other cities, special assessment debt is expected to be covered by property owners, meaning the city is confident the money will be paid.
Bismarck Finance Director Sheila Hillman provided information that shows the city's debt at more than $222 million at the end of last year in a document that outlines a list of bonds linked to special assessments, water and wastewater funds and more.
The largest component, by far, is debt on special assessments bonds, which account for more than $122 million of that amount.
"With those special assessment bonds, the majority of that is used to cover the maintenance of existing infrastructure that we have—sidewalks, curb and gutter, existing streets," City Administrator Keith Hunke said. "It shows the level of maintaining active infrastructure that we have in place. The other component—there are some infrastructure needs that have been covered with some of the specials for new growth."
Hunke said he feels the number is healthy. Despite the downturn in the oil economy, the city is still investing in itself.
"That's a lot of millions—but given what's happening in your community, you're growing, you're maintaining infrastructure," he said.
The city of Minot carried $104.4 million in bond- and note-related debt at the end of last year, according to documents provided by Finance Comptroller Sue Greenheck. Water and sewer infrastructure projects make up the largest portion of that number, at nearly $30.6 million, and debt related to a new airport terminal comes to almost $29.8 million.