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Old jail project may go to referendum

Grand Forks County could conduct its first all-mail election, possibly as early as Aug 3. It would be a referendum on financing the remodeling of the old jail building in downtown Grand Forks to house the 911 call center. A new state law approved...

Grand Forks County could conduct its first all-mail election, possibly as early as Aug 3.

It would be a referendum on financing the remodeling of the old jail building in downtown Grand Forks to house the 911 call center.

A new state law approved this spring allows North Dakota counties to conduct elections by mail. The law goes into effect Aug. 3, and the County Commission will consider the referendum at its meeting Tuesday, but it's not clear if it will be able to hold an election that soon.

The county and the city of Grand Forks have an agreement to relocate the Public Safety Answering Point (formerly the Emergency 911 Center) from the Grand Forks Law Enforcement Center across the street. Architects and engineers plan to have final estimates on the proposed renovation project at that time.

Under the county plan, PSAP would move to the second floor of the old jail, adjacent to the county Juvenile Detention Center, which has been the lone occupant since September 2006, when the Grand Forks County Correctional Center moved to a new $16 million facility along North Washington Street.

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Whether the county proceeds with a mail referendum in August or delays the issue until the November General Election likely will depend on the cost versus the potential cost of the delay.

A preliminary cost estimate for a special referendum is about $30,000, according to Deb Nelson, the county's director of finance and tax.

One matter that is unclear about the new all-mail election law is whether the application process can begin before Aug. 3, in order to conduct the election on or about that date. The process takes about 40 days. Nelson is awaiting an answer from the Secretary of State's office.

Another is the potential cost, because little data exists.

By waiting to put the issue before voters in November, the county could save the estimated $30,000 it would cost for a special referendum.

However, costs of construction also could rise in that time. One of the advantages of bidding early in the fall is that contractors may be looking for work in the fall and winter.

Nelson said it is difficult to compare the cost of holding a special election with polling places to a special election by mail.

According to data from the Secretary of State's office, the all-mail Presidential Primary in North Dakota in February 1992 cost Grand Forks County $72,516. With 10,793 votes cast in the county, that works out to $6.72 per vote.

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The 1996 all-mail June Primary Election cost $2.78 per vote in the county. However, turnout was significantly lower than the 1992 Presidential Primary, with just 4,478 votes cast.

The last Primary Election in Grand Forks County was in 2006, which cost the county about $50,000. With 5,225 votes cast in the county, that works out to $9.57 per vote.

In that primary, the county paid five election officials at each of the county's 37 precincts, including 26 in Grand Forks and 11 in rural areas, according to Nelson.

In an all-mail election, the county likely would have one to three precincts open, with just three officials at each one.

Timing is critical, in order to get a project under way this fall.

If voters approved the mill levy in August, it's possible construction could begin in September. Construction is expected to take seven to eight months.

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