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‘The county has to do this’: As crowded jail and juvie age, Grand Forks County plans sales tax push

Home rule being considered as way to help fund the proposed project.

Home Rule2
Bridgie Hansen, juvenile administrator and training director, stands in the room used for children to keep up with school at the more than 40-year-old Grand Forks County Juvenile Detention Center.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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Bret Burkholder has been the administrator at the Grand Forks County Correction Center since late 2007. On any given day, it’s a job that’s seen him manage scores of prisoners, with numbers ticking upward across the years.

In 2007, he said, the facility's daily average was about 158 inmates. By 2018 and 2019, that figure had grown past 200. COVID-era precautions have cut back on crowding, Burkholder said, but managing the space he’s been given around a pandemic virus is as difficult as it’s ever been.

And even without the virus, the building’s functional capacity – how many bodies it can reasonably handle – is only 180 people. That makes multiple years that the county has stretched the building beyond its limit.

“This is now a 14-year-old building,” Burkholder said. “But the correctional facility never closes. So when your typical buildings are occupied five days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, compare that to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A 14-year-old building has been through a lot, and things start to deteriorate much faster than an office building.”

That’s especially true at the juvenile center in downtown Grand Forks, where Tom Ford, director of Grand Forks County administration, said the county’s expensive patchwork is beginning to outweigh the building’s worth. On a recent tour of the facility, which was built in 1978, Bridgie Hanson, juvenile administrator and training director, pointed out a number of changes she would like to see be made if a new juvenile detention center was built. Among them: removing bars on windows to make it seem less like a jail, adding a nurse’s station and creating more individualized units for children in their care. The current facility has 16 beds and has been updated multiple times over the years.

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Home Rule
Bridgie Hansen, juvenile administrator and training director, showcases an empty pod in which children reside at the Grand Forks County Juvenile Detention Center.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

“A new facility would allow us an observation room, a padded room where kids can’t smash their heads against the wall and still cameras in every unit to make sure these kids are protected, viewed and observed,” Hansen said.

That has left the county weighing $30 million in project costs – including $20 million for expansion at the county jail and a new juvenile detention center. The other $10 million, Ford said, would go pay for project planning, demolition and the like.

Ford and other county leaders hope it can be funded with a sales tax, reasoning that it would spread the cost burden beyond Grand Forks County’s borders. After all, Ford says, these inmates are often regional offenders — shouldn’t the payment be regional, too?

But in order to secure a sales tax, county leaders need to meet voters at the ballot box. First, they’ll need to get voter approval for “home rule,” which Ford describes as writing a kind of “local constitution.” Without home rule, counties’ operating framework exists within more narrowly defined rules set by the state. With it, counties have more budgeting freedom, more flexibility to reorganize elected offices and – importantly – the power to propose a sales tax.

Ford said it’s still not clear when the home rule question could be headed to the ballot – in either the June 2022 primary or the November 2022 general election. But even then, county leaders won’t be done making their case to voters: in order to get a sales tax approved, they’ll have to win that referendum, and then he said they’ll have to win a second referendum to voters to hike the sales tax.

This might be a surprise, given the wash of federal money – from COVID relief to forthcoming infrastructure dollars – set to flow throughout the country. But Ford argues there’s not enough federal COVID relief money, which is heavily restricted, to cover the project. He argues that it’s still not clear exactly what projects will be eligible for the federal infrastructure spending recently approved in Washington.

“The county has to do this,” Ford said. “It can be paid for through property taxes, or it can be paid through sales taxes.”

According to the North Dakota Association of Counties, 12 of North Dakota’s 53 counties have home rule charters. Walsh was the first to adopt one in 1986, which gave county leaders the power to pursue a 0.25% sales tax to support emergency medical services; it also shifted the county auditor to an appointed position.

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Other counties that have since adopted home rule charters include Richland, Cass, Stutsman, Ward, Steele, Williams, Hettinger, Burleigh, Morton, Sargent and Towner. Notably, Burleigh and Morton counties’ charters, adopted in 2014, allowed them to levy a 0.5% for jail construction, according to the NDAOC.

But the future of a home rule charter is unclear in Grand Forks County, especially given that voters have twice defeated the measure before. The community first voted on a home rural proposal in 1992. It returned to the ballot box in 2008, but was tanked by opponents who saw it as purely a means to raise and reorganize tax revenues. Terry Bjerke, who would become a staunch small-government, anti-tax firebrand on the Grand Forks City Council, was one of the leaders of that opposition.

It’s not clear how the measure will land now, given the tourism industry’s needs in Grand Forks and beyond for travelers and their spending power – not to mention significant inflation that has already driven up prices around the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Midwest consumer prices rose between November 2020 and November 2021 at a scorching 7.3% rate – compared to just 1% the 12 months before, and only 1.9% the 12 months before that.

Julie Rygg, who heads Grand Forks’ convention and visitors’ bureau, did not return a request for comment before the Herald’s deadline. But Bob Rost, the former Grand Forks County sheriff and now a county commissioner, said he sees the impact on tourism as minimal.

And, he said, “we don’t want to raise property taxes – people pay enough right now.”

But there’s a question of timing. County Commissioner Tom Falck, speaking at an early November meeting, wondered if a property tax hike – and then pitching a sales tax to replace it — might be the smartest move. Speaking this week, Falck said that opportunity has since passed. But he’s still enthusiastic about passing a home rule charter.

“I think it’s a positive approach for Grand Forks County,” he said

Part of the problem goes beyond the economics of the current moment. Both Grand Forks County and the state of North Dakota have been grappling with a growing inmate population for years.

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In Burleigh and Morton counties, the 2014 sales tax for jail construction was driven by crowding issues at their respective jails – and at the time, Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert said he fretted about the same problems cropping up across western North Dakota jails in coming years.

At about the same time, the state of North Dakota began reckoning with its own criminal justice system – relaxing penalties for low-level offenders (especially for drug crimes) and boosting funding for drug rehabilitation. The result has been less pressure on a crowded state system, where officials highlight not only the extraordinary costs of housing inmates, but the better long-term effects on the prisoners themselves. As state prison officials have often pointed out, today’s offenders will be tomorrow’s neighbors.

But for now, the numbers have kept climbing, and COVID hasn’t helped with crowding issues. In Grand Forks, the county’s answer is to find more space.

“The overcrowding – they have to have more space in the facility,” Rost said. “They have to have an area for the medical people and stuff like that. With the COVID and stuff right now, they’ve got to have a space for dealing with stuff like that too. You can only hold so many people in that correctional center.”

The Herald’s Jacob Holley contributed to this report.

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