The Grand Forks County Commission, meeting in person for the first time in a year, took action to address a number of building maintenance issues and signed off on a federal plan to buy out willing homeowners who reside in areas frequently hit by floods.

Commissioners and county staff met in person for their regular board meeting after technology problems torpedoed a same-day meeting of the Grand Forks County Administrative Services Committee on Tuesday, April 20. Video conferencing technology has been an issue at the county building recently, and upgrades to the system will soon commence, according to Tom Ford, director of administration.

“Moving forward, until that system arrives and is installed ... we're going to halt the Zoom meetings for now, just because of all the problems we're having,” Ford said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners OK'd a plan to sponsor a Federal Emergency Management Agency plan to buy out homeowners in frequently flood-hit areas. According to Highway Engineer Nick West, 16 homeowners expressed interest in FEMA's buyout program, and five are seeking to go ahead with paperwork to have their homes bought out. Some homes are located in Manvel and others near Arvilla.

The program will pay 75% of the appraised value and 75% of the demolition costs. The remainder of the costs will likely be borne by the homeowners. The county elected not to proceed with shouldering the remaining fees. Some homeowners also have the option of moving their houses to another lot.

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Under FEMA’s program, which is being administered by the state Department of Emergency Services, lots that have been bought out cannot be redeveloped, in order to avoid repetitive flood damage. Lots will revert to county ownership once they are bought out.

In other news, commissioners:

  • Approved allowing Brett Burkholder, administrator of Grand Forks County Correctional Center, to submit requests for proposals to take over services at the jail, including the commissary, inmate phone and texting services, and the visitation service. Those functions are managed by outside vendors, and Burkholder told commissioners that it is time to look for new vendors that may generate more revenue for the county.

  • Reinstated an emergency fire declaration. A previous burn ban was enacted in late March because of drought conditions in the state. That ban was rescinded on April 14, after rain and snow hit the region. The declaration does not act as a burn ban, but is a procedural move that allows for the speedy enactment of a ban, should weather conditions merit one.

  • Approved repairs to elevators and security doors, as well as authorized staff to begin the process of replacing the County Office Building’s chiller, a large piece of equipment on the top of the building. Replacing the chiller may mean dismantling part or all of the decorative dome that adorns the building, and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  • Received news from County Auditor Debbie Nelson that Grand Forks County will receive $13.5 million through the American Rescue Plan legislation. The money will come in two payments, beginning on May 11, with the remainder coming a year later. The funds have a few strings attached and must be used for COVID mitigation purposes, business support, government operations, and temporary wage increases for essential workers. According to Nelson, the county’s finances are in reasonably good shape, with a cash balance of more than $17 million. Commissioners, she said, may wish to consider tackling other maintenance projects, or reducing the mill rate, as a way to slowly return some money to homeowners.

  • Commissioners also OK'd Nelson signing a memorandum of understanding with Grand Forks Public Schools, concerning an upcoming referendum about funding for a new school building. Nelson will assist with training staff members for the referendum.