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GF officials outline legislative priorities

Grand Forks city and county leaders have a variety of priorities for the upcoming legislative session, ranging from small requests to big changes that they say would benefit the community or the state as a whole.

Grand Forks city and county leaders have a variety of priorities for the upcoming legislative session, ranging from small requests to big changes that they say would benefit the community or the state as a whole.

But a few common themes emerged at a Tuesday forum that brought Grand Forks officials together to discuss what they'll push for when lawmakers gather in Bismarck early next year.

In a lot of ways, the city isn't facing the same pressing issues that other parts of the state are now trying to deal with -- including the need for more infrastructure improvements in western North Dakota or the hope of addressing the threat of flooding in Fargo and Devils Lake.

Still, Grand Forks officials said they'd like lawmakers to work toward continuing property tax relief and easing restrictions on local budgeting powers.

Pete Haga, the mayor's assistant, said Grand Forks is in a "defensive position" when it comes to the upcoming session.


"We don't have a lot of big projects or things that we are seeking," he said. "We mostly want to make sure that some of our local powers and our local abilities and our flexibility are left alone."

Haga said city officials don't support local "caps" that would restrict local budgeting authority, an idea that they expect some legislators will want to discuss next year. He said that's a topic that's best handled at home by elected officials rather than "imposed restrictions" coming from the state.

Another priority for the city is to get legislators' support -- and the state's financial backing -- to help pay for a new water treatment plant.


Gary Malm, chairman of the Grand Forks County Commission, had a simple message for lawmakers: Don't send unfunded mandates down to the counties and cities.

"We have enough of those," he said. "Don't tell us we have to do something and give us no way to raise the money."

Malm said the state should consider giving counties the chance to raise taxes, a move that would give local officials higher revenue to keep up with increasing costs and necessary upgrades to equipment.

The county also wants more state funding to deal with the increasing costs of foster care. Counties pick up 25 percent of the portion not covered by the federal government -- which now amounts to about $600,000 a year for Grand Forks County.


Patrick Dame, executive director of the Airport Authority, said North Dakota has seen "considerable increases" in passengers and flights. The Grand Forks International Airport recently broke its 16-year record for departing passengers and is on track to have about 117,000 boardings by the end of the year.

Dame said this growth -- which is also being seen at airports around the state -- is "great news." But it also has led to more need for infrastructure improvements, he said.

Airport officials would like to see UND gain representation on the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission so the university can request grants on its own. Currently, the Regional Airport Authority makes requests on behalf of UND.

The university's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences has seen big increases in international training contracts in recent years, but Dame said allowing UND to push for more state support could give a boost to the school's growth.

"Really I feel like we as an authority are hindering the development of UND," he said.

One much-discussed topic of the night was the need for lawmakers to fully fund a property tax relief plan that was put into place in 2009.

Superintendent Larry Nybladh said the plan, which provided a new state appropriation to school districts in order to offset a large portion of the schools' local levies, resulted in an annual property tax savings of $440 on a median value home in Grand Forks.

Overall, taxpayers in the Grand Forks district saw a savings of about $10.8 million in 2009 and $11.2 million in 2010. Nybladh said Grand Forks Public Schools supports the full funding of this reduction plan for the next two years.


The district also is calling for an emergency appropriation early in the legislative session to cover an unintentional $4.2 million gap in state funding for the tax relief -- a gap that could cost Grand Forks schools $300,000 in revenue unless lawmakers take action.

An upcoming shortfall in the Teachers' Fund for Retirement, a defined benefit pension plan, will likely lead to legislative action during the session. But Nybladh said the district wants the state to carefully consider its options before enacting as "aggressive" of a plan to deal with the problem as has been proposed in recent months.

If the state were to ask for a 1 percent increase in contributions to shore up the shortfall, it would result an additional $400,000 cost for both the school district and its employees, he said. A 2 percent increase would raise the costs by $800,000 for both groups.

"The mentality is do we really need to fix this in one biennium?" he said. "We have a problem 30, 35 years down the road."

Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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