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Our view: Home rule is a logical step to fix a growing funding problem in Grand Forks County

Discussions on home rule have begun anew as the Grand Forks County Commission considers how it will pay for expansion and upgrades at the county jail and for a new juvenile detention center.

Herald pull quote, 1/15/2022
Herald graphic

If asked to decide today, would Grand Forks voters approve a home rule charter for the county? In the past, such proposals haven’t fared well, failing in 1992 and and again in 2008.

But discussions on home rule have begun anew as the Grand Forks County Commission considers how it will pay for expansion and upgrades at the county jail and for a new juvenile detention center.

At the Grand Forks County Correctional Center , the functional capacity is 180 inmates, but recent years have seen averages of 200 or more. And Bret Burkholder, the facility’s administrator, makes a good point about the wear and tear that occurs there: Since it’s used 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, things deteriorate faster there than at, say, a county office building that is only used eight or 10 hours a day, five days per week.

And at the current juvenile detention center – built in 1978 – a host of modern upgrades are needed.

All told, the price tag could come in somewhere around $30 million.

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How to pay for it all? County leaders are proposing instituting a sales tax that would spread the burden throughout the county and beyond. To do it, though, the county must move from its current governmental format – one that falls within a defined set of rules dictated by the state – to a home rule format, which would allow for unique modifications to things like local taxation.

It’s possible a vote on home rule could happen this year – perhaps in June or November.

Even if home rule is approved, it doesn’t mean the sales tax increase is a sure thing, since a second vote would be required to actually increase the tax.

It’s not a new idea. Other counties in North Dakota have adopted home rule charters, including Walsh, Richland, Cass, Stutsman, Ward, Steele, Williams, Hettinger, Burleigh, Morton, Sargent and Towner. Dozens of North Dakota cities also have adopted home rule charters, including Grand Forks.

Advantages include flexibility in budgeting and revenue sources, as well as flexibility in government organization. For instance, the county could create or reorganize departments and agencies to better serve local needs. However, home rule would not eliminate elections to determine the state’s attorney or the sheriff.

Home rule allows taxing entities – in this case, the county – to more broadly spread a tax burden. Residents would have the right to initiate measures or refer actions taken by the County Commission.

Further, it provides more opportunity for local control, without state interference.

County Administrator Tom Ford said a myth that surrounds home rule is that it allows local governments to enact new taxes without consent from residents. He said that’s not true – home rule, he stressed, simply allows the county to propose new taxes to pay for essentials. Residents then ultimately decide via elections.

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As the County Commission begins the process and lays out its case for adopting a home rule charter, it seems to be a logical step to fix a funding conundrum that exists in the county.

And, as Ford said in a recent Herald report, the upgrades at the jail and juvenile center need to be done and “it can be paid for through property taxes, or it can be paid through sales taxes.”

We prefer the latter, and it will take a home rule charter to accomplish it.

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