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Our view: As debate begins, voting in favor of home rule seems like a no-brainer

A committee is pushing a plan that will ask voters to decide whether to adopt a home-rule charter, which would allow the county to implement a sales tax increase that would spread the burden of paying for those necessary facility and infrastructure upgrades.

Herald pull quote, 7/2/22
Herald graphic
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The Grand Forks County Commission wants people to know that future taxation is in the hands of the county’s residents.

Specifically, property taxes are going up to pay for infrastructure improvements, including a new juvenile detention center, an expansion of the Grand Forks County Correctional Center and upgrades on roads and other public property throughout the county. As sure as you’re reading this, higher taxes are going to happen.

Or, there’s an alternative.

A committee is pushing a plan that will ask voters to decide whether to adopt a home-rule charter, which would allow the county to implement a sales tax increase that would spread the burden of paying for those necessary facility and infrastructure upgrades. If voters approve the home-rule charter – likely to come to a vote in November – they then will be asked if the county can implement that half-cent sales tax boost.

At present, the county’s residents are being surveyed on the matter after a questionnaire was sent out last month.

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We suggest three things:

  1. Fill out the survey and return it to the county. It only takes a few minutes to complete. The deadline is July 6. 
  2. In November, if the home-rule charter is indeed put on the ballot – and all indications are that it will be – consider voting “yes” to approve it. 
  3. Likewise, consider voting to approve the half-cent sales-tax increase that can only happen after the home-rule charter is approved. 

Don’t fear a home-rule charter; a dozen counties in North Dakota already are using home rule to their advantage.
The issue isn’t necessarily about change anyway. We’ll all still be taxed, but this move is more about getting away from complete dependence on property taxes to pay for the bulk of county services and improvements that always will exist.

Property taxes generally are resented because they are universally unfair – not everybody owns property in the county. Yet every single person who lives here or even briefly passes through here uses (and wears out) the county’s infrastructure. Yet visitors don’t pay for using our roads; nonresidents also are housed in our county correctional facilities.

That’s why sales taxes are a better method to help pay for these important services. Meanwhile, it’s important to note that a number of goods – such as food, natural gas and farm machinery – will be excluded from the added tax, if it’s enacted.

County officials expect the additional half-cent tax will raise approximately $5 million per year. The new tax would sunset at 20 years, unless voters decide to extend it. Of the funds collected, 60% would be used for building projects, 20% would go to the highway department and 20% would be used for property tax relief. Although property owners probably won’t see an immediate reduction in their tax bill, the new sales tax would keep the county from larger increases that will be needed to pay for services.

Also included in the home-rule proposal are term limits for County Commission members. What’s not included – the Herald has been assured – are hidden methods to take away voters’ ability to choose their elected leaders, such as sheriff, commissioners or the state’s attorney.

So voters are left with a pretty obvious choice: They can pay increased property taxes or use an increased sales tax that will be designed to gather funds from so many more county residents and visitors.

Sure, there is plenty that needs to be discussed in the coming months. We appreciate a willingness by committee members to get before the public and explain what the charter will mean for everyday residents. That, by many accounts, was lacking when home-rule proposals failed in the past.

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Perhaps – as the debate begins and as more people express concerns – we will change our minds as the election nears. But for now, voting in favor of a home-rule charter seems like a no-brainer.

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