Port: Want to give property owners some relief? Give the firefighters back their full funding

"North Dakota's lawmakers could help reduce property insurance premiums, and take away some upward pressure on property taxes, by giving the state's fire departments back their full funding."

West Fargo Fire personnel revive a dog rescued from a burning house at 513 17th St. E. in West Fargo on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.
David Samson / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — Property tax relief is something that is often talked about and seldom accomplished.

But that's a whole different column.

There is one way — simple to the point of being blindingly obvious — lawmakers could give property owners a modicum of meaningful relief, and that's for them to give the firefighters their full funding back.

North Dakota's fire districts get funding from many different sources, including a share of the state's tax on insurance premiums. When you pay your homeowners insurance, the premium is taxed, and a portion goes into a fund managed by the Insurance Commissioner's Office and, from there, onto the various fire districts.

At least, that's how it worked from 1887 until 1985 when our lawmakers, amid the farm crisis , raided the fund to help make ends meet. "Since 1985, funding to the fire districts has fluctuated between 101% of the funds to as low as 48% of the funds available," Insurance Commissioner Jon Godfread said in testimony to state lawmakers during the 2021 session.


Our state's financial outlook is much different now than in the 1980s. We're enjoying a budget surplus, and lawmakers are looking at ways to use that surplus to benefit the taxpayers.

"Kevin O'Leary had a point when he compared North Dakota's economic policies to Minnesota's, but in making it he made our state seem small and petty."
"A Sanford employee on a committee chaired by a Sanford-funded politician moved to reconsider a bill so that another Sanford-funded politician could make an amendment a Sanford lobbyist asked for."
"Even if Trump is convicted in the criminal justice system, it's not going to matter in the political system until Trump's supporters care about the honesty and integrity of their candidate."
"The way things are trending, the tax policy that emerges from this Legislature may tilt more toward failed property tax buydowns than income tax relief."
"But I suspect that won't stop many self-styled 'conservatives' in this era of Republican politics, dominated by reactionary supporters of Donald Trump, from accusing him of liberalism."

Stopping the raids on funds intended for firefighters is one way.

In 2022, our state's firefighters responded to over 48,000 emergencies, according to Godfread. Not all of them were fires — we all know our firefighters do a lot more than just douse flames these days — but those that were resulted in $46.2 million in property damage.

And that's just property. How do we put a worthwhile dollar value on the harm done to people?

Ensuring that the firefighters get the full benefit of the tax on our insurance premiums will pay a dividend in public safety while not costing us anything more because this is a tax we're already paying.

But it could also reduce the cost of owning property.

What you pay for insurance is partly based on the level of fire protection your community has. There is a classification system. The higher your local fire department ranks, the less you pay in insurance. Do you know what helps fire departments move up in the ranking?



Property taxes also fund fire departments, and while we know there's no guarantee that more local funding will reduce property taxes, as the Legislature has demonstrated with several futile property tax buy-down schemes in the past, giving the fire departments this funding will at least alleviate some of the upward pressure on property taxes.

Senate Bill 2211 , introduced by Sen. Mark Weber, a Republican from Casselton, would move the state fire marshal from the Attorney General's Office to the insurance department and restore the continuing appropriation of insurance tax revenues to fire departments to what it was before 1985.

This is good for firefighters, for public safety, and while it doesn't solve our property tax problems, it is a needed salve for property owners who are feeling abused.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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