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Grand Forks County Commission signs off on tax abatements for proposed development projects

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, City Administrator Todd Feland and City Council President Dana Sande appeared before the commission to ask for approval of the multi-million-dollar projects.

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The Grand Forks County Office Building, photographed on Nov. 23, 2015. Photo by Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald
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The Grand Fork County Commission, at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 19, voted to lend its support to four large Tax Increment Financing proposals developers are planning to carry out in the city.

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, City Administrator Todd Feland and City Council President Dana Sande appeared before the commission to ask for approval of the multi-million-dollar projects . Those projects include a $31 million redevelopment of Memorial Stadium on the UND campus; a nearly $50 million plan by Epic Companies to build housing, retail space and a public plaza at the location of the now closed Townhouse Hotel; a $7 million plan to renovate St. John’s Block downtown; and a $27 million plan to turn the Lyons Auto site into five stories of apartments and retail space.

“If you look at the tax entities ourselves, sometimes you've got to plant seeds so that we can harvest the fruit of the future,” said Bochenski, in support of the projects.

The Grand Forks City Council has given preliminary approval for the projects, but needs to finalize it at a later council meeting. All four tax-collecting entities – the city, county, Grand Forks School Board and park district – need to sign off on the projects before they can begin.

Tax Increment Financing provides a temporary tax break – lasting decades in some cases – to developers seeking to improve a property. Through the TIF program, a redeveloped building becomes more expensive, and more taxable, but developers need only pay the original property tax for the agreed upon amount of time. After that, they must pay the full amount of property taxes.

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“I hope that you agree that these are worthy of these incentives, and will make a big difference in our communities, one that you personally, should support,” Sande told the commissioners.

In other commission news:

–The commission moved to support the city’s expansion of its Renaissance Zone. “Ren Zones” were created by the state after the flood of 1997 to encourage development in downtown and other areas. Like TIF proposals, Ren Zones require the approval of all taxing entities in the county. The expanded zone moves from downtown to Gateway Drive and includes a portion of the Gateway corridor, as well as the area around the Grand Cities Mall.

–The Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office announced the hiring of Kaitlin Atkinson, to be the county’s Vision Zero Coordinator. The program is sponsored by the state and does not impact the county budget. The goal of the program is to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries caused by motor vehicles, through a personal responsibility campaign.

Commission Chairwoman Cynthia Pic, referencing a recent car accident that caused three deaths in Grand Forks, thanked Atkinson for taking the position.

“We should not have people losing their lives in two intersections in downtown Grand Forks. It just shouldn't happen,” Pic said.

–The commission approved the renovation of a portion of the county Juvenile Detention center, across from the police department. Commissioners approved renovations not to exceed $50,000 for a space to supervise minors not in detention proper, but being kept under supervision after committing a minor crime. The move comes after Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota announced it will be closing its doors. The nonprofit runs a youth jail diversion program that will ultimately be discontinued. Juvenile Detention Administrator Bridgie Hansen expressed hope her department could hire some LSS staff workers to continue the diversion program.

–Director of Public Health Debbie Swanson told the commission the vaccine rollout is continuing in the state, and 66,000 doses have been administered. She said COVID-19 cases continue to decline, and the county health officer’s dashboard, which tracks coronavirus conditions, could soon hit the “green” level on the color-coded ranking.

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The recent reinstatement of the county’s mask mandate, put in place on Jan. 18 when the state’s order expired, has drawn a few negative comments, according to Tom Ford, director of administration. Mostly, he said, people have spoken in favor of the mandate, which is nearly identical to the state’s.

–The commission took no action on a request asking for a “joint powers agreement” from a group called the Border Township Associative Group. The group is composed of residents of several townships in North Dakota and Minnesota near Oslo. Their goal is to formally become an entity that could accept state, federal and local funding for flood mitigation projects near Oslo, that include replacing a pair of bridges. The commission deferred on granting the agreement until it has heard from the Grand Forks County water board, which it will do at a later meeting.

–The commission approved a loan to Americus Township to help cover the bill for road repairs from flooding in the fall of 2019. The loan will be repaid when FEMA reimburses the township for those repairs.

–Grand Forks County spent nearly 95% of its 2020 budget, a good year for the county, according to Debbie Nelson, county auditor. The county spent $21.6 million out of $22.5. The county collected $1.3 million more in property taxes than it did last year, and benefited from $2.2 million in federal CARES Act funding. To date, the county has spent about $600,000 of those funds, which continue to dwindle. The funds are being spent on COVID mitigation projects and other efforts, with the goal of reducing the tax burden on property owners.

–The county authorized spending $216,000 from its capital improvements budget on various repairs, including nearly $50,000 on network upgrades at the county office building and $20,000 on improving the building’s fire monitoring system. The county’s capital improvement budget is $750,000, and commissioners decided to delay spending on expensive upgrades, including a $175,000 body scanner at the correctional center, in order not to exhaust the funds in the first month of the year. Commissioners said they would revisit items placed on hold in the summer.

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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