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County voters will decide fate of 911 center Wednesday

Correction: The version of this story in Tuesday's Herald described the special election as "today." The vote is Wednesday. Wednesday, for the first time in memory, Grand Forks County is holding a countywide special election, according to county ...

Correction: The version of this story in Tuesday's Herald described the special election as "today." The vote is Wednesday.

Wednesday, for the first time in memory, Grand Forks County is holding a countywide special election, according to county officials.

It's nothing big or controversial, by all accounts.

Just a plan to issue $1.7 million worth of general obligation bonds to pay for renovating the old jail building to give the 911 call-in center a new and larger home.

County officials don't expect a big voter turnout and haven't seen any sign of widespread public opposition to the idea. But any plan to issue general obligation bonds must go to the voters.

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Now housed in the same building as the Police and Sheriff's Department, the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) needs more room for its increased services, county officials say. The old jail building connected to the courthouse vacant since the new jail was opened in September on the county fairgrounds is a logical location if it's remodeled, county officials have decided.

Paid off over 10 years, the bond issue would result in an added tax levy of 1.24 mills a year, which would mean $5.58 in added property tax on a $100,000 home.

Longtime employees in the county's finance and tax department cannot remember the last time there was a countywide special election, said Auditor Debbie Nelson.

Arvin Kvasager, longtime county commissioner and a board member of the PSAP, said he, too, can't remember the last time there was a countywide special election.

Although criticism of the County Commission has been voiced over inaccurate planning for the new jail that led to large overruns in the operations budget so far, Kvasager said he hasn't heard of any opposition to Wednesday's ballot issue.

"I hope they don't hold the PSAP responsible for any errors made in regard to the (new) jail," he said Monday. "I wouldn't want to see the PSAP suffer, because that is such a vital part of our emergency response system. Everybody in the county has a possibility of having to use that service."

(For the record, the County Commission fired jail administrator Gary Gardner over the awry budgeting for the new jail, which is expected to run maybe $1 million over budget this year. The search is on for a new administrator.)

Five years ago, emergency service providers at Altru Health Systems, and in Larimore and Northwood, N.D., gathered petitions to put a tax levy raise on the June primary ballot that doubled from 3 to 6 mills the countywide levy for ambulance and other emergency services.

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But that wasn't a special election, and it wasn't sponsored by the County Commission, Kvasager pointed out.

He thinks that 2002 vote may be a sort of harbinger for today's vote.

"The population here has been very receptive in supplying emergency services," Kvasager said. "I think they really value that service."

The city, the county and UND are partners in the PSAP and pay the costs.

The city will pay rent to the county for the use of the old jail building owned by the county, Kvasager said.

For years there has been talk of expanding the PSAP to include East Grand Forks and Polk County in Minnesota and the new, larger location would facilitate that, Kvasager said. "That has not come to fruition yet, but it certainly is one of the objectives."

And if it fails?

If Wednesday's vote fails, the County Commission will have to decide whether to find other ways of funding either or both projects of fixing up the old jail building and finding the PSAP a bigger spot, Kvasager said.

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Nelson figures the special election will cost only about $10,000. "I'm doing it as cheaply as I can," she said. Only 10 polling sites, far fewer than in general and primary elections, will be open: one in each of the county's cities, including Grand Forks, where the Alerus Center is the only polling place.

The only new polling site is in Manvel, N.D., where voting will be held in the elementary school instead of the former site in the community center. She switched spots to save rent money, Nelson said.

Nelson said she's got 20,000 ballots ready which would be nearly enough for a typical general election but she expects far fewer voters. By Monday morning, only 70 people had picked up absentee ballots, and only 40 had been returned, Nelson said. In a heavy election, she sees 3,000 absentee ballots.

Besides the polling sites Wednesday, all day today voters can pick up absentee ballots in Nelson's office in the county office building. As long as they are dropped off in her office or postmarked by midnight today, they will count. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday.

An official notice of the special election appears on Page 5D in today's Herald.

For what it's worth, the bond issue amount would be about one-thousandth of the assessed value of all the taxable property in the county, according to figures provided in the county's official notice of the special election.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237 or at slee@gfherald.com .

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