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Our view: Separate ballot questions best approach for Grand Forks County’s home-rule proposal

Grand Forks County residents will indeed have the opportunity to vote on home rule, the County Commission decided this week.

Herald pull quote, 8/20/22
Herald graphic
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Grand Forks County residents will indeed have the opportunity to vote on home rule, the County Commission decided this week. In a decision Tuesday, the commission opted to push the proposal to the November General Election.

Next up for the commission and especially the Home Rule Charter Committee – a group that includes commission members and others – is to hit the streets and do whatever possible to educate the public in the short time that remains before the election.

At Tuesday’s commission meeting, there was at least a little debate about how the plan should be worded on the ballot. In a 5-1 vote, the commission decided it should appear as two separate questions.

Although official wording has not yet been released, the questions would roughly be:

● Should the county move forward with home rule?

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● If home rule is approved, should the county create a new half-cent sales tax to help pay for a list of upgrades and renovations needed to detention centers, roads and other infrastructure?

The second cannot happen without the first. So if the first question fails, the second question – the one about the proposed sales tax – is moot.

Although not everyone on the commission agreed, we believe having two questions on the ballot is best.

In a meeting earlier this summer with the Herald editorial board, members of the Home Rule Charter Committee discussed the possibility of two questions vs. one.

At that time, we asked: “Let's say the ballot only talks about the home rule charter and it’s approved, without mentioning the proposed sales tax. Can the county then enact the sales tax? Or do you have to still run that past the voters?”

Tom Falck – a member of the committee as well as the County Commission – answered: “That would be another ballot issue.”

The editorial board’s belief is that the question about home rule is not just about creating a sales tax. Rather, home rule gives county leaders wider ability to govern on hyper-local issues that arise.

Falck, earlier this summer, summed it up like this: “When I look at something like this, I look at, hopefully, 25 years in the future and this provides aid to the commissioners and the citizens of the county on issues that we may not even anticipate at this stage. This, I think, gives the county more ability to deal with problems that come up. It allows us to control anything that Bismarck doesn't maintain control of. Once in a while we have someone come in, we have a lot of small housing areas, and they have problems out there. And there's really not much we can do to help them if they've got one.”

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Remember: Grand Forks County is not blazing a heretofore unknown trail. A number of counties in North Dakota already have moved to home rule.

And this is not just about a sales tax, although we believe the proposed half-cent tax is a good idea. The county has a long list of improvements that need to be made, and someone’s going to pay for it. At the moment, it rests on the shoulders of the county’s property owners.

For those who don’t own property, they’ll end up paying too, in the form of higher rents or usage fees. So why not spread the burden to include the thousands of visitors who come into the county and who use public infrastructure while doing so?

The first step is home rule. The second step is for county voters to approve the proposed sales tax increase. But the latter cannot happen without the former, so putting two separate questions on the ballot is the best approach.

Now that’s taken care of, we suggest the committee and the commission spend these next 10 weeks spreading the word, answering questions and quelling concerns that always arise when talking about taxes and government changes.

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