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Viewpoint: A few cents for a great program

If you could reliably reduce the future incidence of crime, drug use and suicide in our community, would you be willing to commit 30 cents from your household budget per year?

This column focuses on the intersection of one important, expensive and mandatory function of county governance — law enforcement — and one small, inexpensive, and discretionary function of county government — arts funding, specifically arts funding targeted on troubled youth but integrated into a larger program so seamlessly as to be nearly invisible.

Law enforcement:

A county expense

required by law

The Grand Forks County Commission delivers law enforcement by funding (primarily through property tax dollars) a sheriff's office, a state's attorney office, an adult correctional center, a juvenile detention center and by maintaining a courthouse.

In 2017, law enforcement will cost the county approximately $14.5 million (about $12 million net paid by county taxpayers after deducting revenues — although some of the revenue comes from the city of Grand Forks, which houses its prisoners in the County Correctional Center).

The figures do not include the costs of paying for and maintaining the buildings, which are accounted for separately. Those costs add about $1.5 million per year in bond payments, building maintenance and utilities for the courthouse and the correctional center. In 2017, Grand Forks County's total budget is $46.6 million (of which about $30 million will come from property taxes).

Law enforcement accounts for about 34 percent of the total county budget or 45 percent of the taxpayer-funded portion.

SPA: A community treasure

From a small beginning in 1987, the Summer Performing Arts Company (SPA) has grown into a community treasure. SPA's enrollment has been over 1,000 students per year at least since the year 2000 and was about 1,400 students in the past year.

SPA is sponsored primarily by the Grand Forks School District, but is open to students from throughout the county and beyond.

For the past 17 years, the Grand Forks County Commission has provided a small amount of money to SPA (never more than $10,000 per year). The preliminary 2018 county budget zeroes out that funding.

The county's contribution is so small as to appear meaningless against the full cost of the program, but here's the thing: the county's contribution has always been directed to a special part of the SPA program which seeks out students at the margins of the social scene and mentors them in important ways.

The SPA Mentoring Program is designed to create opportunities for students to develop positive peer and adult relationships. All SPA participants have access to mentoring activities. At-risk students are referred to the program by a counselor, teacher, or parent, and one-on-one attention is given to these students by trained mentors.

The county's modest but consistent funding allowed SPA to leverage additional dollars into the mentoring program because county funding helped to establish the concept of broad community support.

The intersection

Dr. Steven LeMire, of UND's Bureau of Educational Services and Applied Research, has conducted assessments of SPA participants for several years and has concluded that the program "is having a substantial positive impact on student participants in life skills such as teamwork, leadership, cooperation, conflict resolution, tolerance, and compassion."

So, there's the connection: young people who have learned how to cooperate, work together in teams, resolve conflict peacefully, and feel compassion toward themselves and others are very unlikely to be a burden on law enforcement.

By seeking out and engaging students who appear to be on a negative trajectory, including them in a hugely popular arts program, and then mentoring positive character development for all participants but with special attention to those who need it most, lives can be changed for the better.

Now, back to the question: Would you invest 30 cents per year if you believed such an investment would help reduce law enforcement costs? The most efficient way to do so is to encourage the commission to continue being a team player and a community leader by restoring funding to this proven program. (A $10,000 annual expenditure out of a $30 million tax levy = $0.30 of a $3,000 property tax bill, of which the county's share is about $900.)

The extent to which a county funds any function, whether mandatory or discretionary, depends to some degree on the level of community support commissioners perceive for such funding. The 2018 budget will be on the agenda for approval at 4 p.m. Sept. 19.

To contact current Grand Forks County Commissioners, go to gfcounty.nd.gov/Commissioners or send a group email in care of the county auditor to Debbie.Nelson@gfcounty.org.

Connie Triplett is a former Grand Forks County Commissioner (1993-2008) and a former state legislator from District 18 in Grand Forks (2003-16).

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