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Marhula to seek GF County Commission seat

C.T. Marhula will seek a seat on the Grand Forks County Commission, he announced today. Marhula, a local Democratic activist and former Grand Forks School Board member, said that, if elected, he would propose a one-year freeze on all existing cou...

C.T. Marhula will seek a seat on the Grand Forks County Commission, he announced today.

Marhula, a local Democratic activist and former Grand Forks School Board member, said that, if elected, he would propose a one-year freeze on all existing county property taxes, adding that any increase in property value would be offset in a reduced mill rate.

"This is not a gimmick with mills," he said. "This is a proposal that allows the homeowner to pay exactly the same amount in county property taxes."

He said any additional county expenditure would have to be paid through taxes on new properties.

Two current county commissioners, Connie Triplett and Arvin Kvasager, are up for re-election in the Nov. 4 General Election. April 11 is the filing deadline for the June 10 primary election ballot.

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In making his candidacy announcement, Marhula said he also opposes a proposed one-percent county sales tax to pay off the construction debt on the $16 million county correctional center.

"Why should our good friends and neighbors have to pay for our mistake?" he asked.

When it was built in 2005 and 2006, the county board told taxpayers that revenue from housing federal prisoners, as well as regional prisoners, would pay off the revenue bonds used for construction, as well as for the jail's operation.

However, a few months before the new jail opened, commissioners learned that proposed income from the federal government was overestimated. That resulted in the jail operating at a deficit, which totaled about $500,000 in 2007.

The county board raised property taxes by 10.3 mills for 2008, including 8.26 mills for debt service on the jail. The increase will cost the owner of a $150,000 house about $70 extra per year.

Then, the board floated the idea of a 1-percent sales tax to replace the property tax increase.

The sales tax, commissioners said, would reduce county property taxes by 8 to 10 mills and cut the time it would take to pay off the jail's construction bonds from 17 years to four years. Sales tax revenue could save county taxpayers as much as $3.5 million in interest payments, according to the county's finance and tax office.

The board has not decided yet whether to put the sales tax issue on the June Primary ballot. In order to pass, county voters first must approve a home rule charter, which would give the county the authority to ask county voters to approve a sales tax.

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A December survey of county residents indicated 56 percent of respondents favored a sales tax to pay off the jail. Of those voting yes, 89 percent said they favor or mildly favor using a sales tax to pay the debt service.

Marhula said he wonders if the county has any legal recourse against people who provided financial advice on the sale of revenue bonds for the jail.

He also said that if the present county board adopted a property tax freeze before he was elected, he would consider modest, below-inflation increases in future years.

Marhula, who lives in Grand Forks, recently was hired as clerk-treasurer for Warren, Minn., a city of 1,700 people about 25 miles northeast of Grand Forks.

Bonham is a North Dakota regional reporter for the Herald. He can be reached at kbonham@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1269.

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