FARGO — When Cass County Finance Director Michael Montplaisir looks over estimated property tax bills for county residents he sees pretty stable tax rates for 2020.
After the county board approved its mill levy on Monday, Sept. 16, that sets a budget in the amount of $123.7 million and a tax levy of 56.80 mills — just a mill higher than last year — it fits into that scenario.
Although some property owners might have higher valuations that would increase their taxes more, Montplaisir said in some instances, taxes will only go up a few dollars for most Fargo and rural county residents. In booming West Fargo, with its need to built more schools and streets, the tax rate will be higher.
The county share of the overall property tax bill is about 17%, while the biggest share is levied by school districts with the amount in Fargo at 53% and in West Fargo at 46%. The West Fargo city share is 26%, while the Fargo city bill is at 18%. Park districts in both cities levy about 10% of the bill.
What's helping in the property tax bill on the county side is the North Dakota Legislature's takeover of most of the social services funding.
When a pilot program started about two years ago, the county was able to drop its mill levy from 61.2 mills to 52.5 mills, Montplaisir said, and although the mill rate is increasing slightly for next year, it's still well below a county rate of 75.10 mills in 2011, the highest rate in more than a decade.
A mill raises about $900,000 so the drop because of social services saved the county about $10 million to $11 million a year, according to Montplaisir.
What the Legislature did was divide the state into 19 zones for social services, instead of having a budget for each of the 53 counties in the state. Multiple counties were grouped together to provide services, thus saving money.
Cass County is in its own zone, called the Human Service Zone Fund, as its based on population. In the future, the zone board and the North Dakota Department of Human Services will approve funding before the county board gives a final approval. Montplaisir said the county would no longer be responsible for any shortfalls in social services funding and that some county workers will now become state employees.
However, although the state took over social services funding, the Legislature also dropped a 12% direct cut in property taxes for residents so Montplaisir said it was "all kind of a wash" for property taxes over the past few years.
No one spoke at the county's budget hearing Monday night, Sept. 16, and commissioners also didn't have much to say as they have been involved in the budgeting process that started in May.
However, there were a few comments by the commissioners on a 1 mill levy or about $900,000 added to next year's budget for the planned Career Workforce Academy that will serve all county schools with educational training opportunities to fill jobs in the state. A group supporting the academy was also in attendance at the budget hearing to see if the levy was approved, although no one spoke.
Commissioner Chad Peterson said he still questions whether the county should be getting involved in education, although he said Williams County recently provided property tax funds for school projects in Williston. He also said the Legislature was apparently considering providing more funding for workforce academies in coming years.
"I still want to know how these funds will be utilized," Peterson added about the county levy.
Commission Chairwoman Mary Scherling said emails were running about 5 to 1 against the county providing funding for the academy.
Commissioner Duane Breitling wondered if Cass County schools could be a part of the planned workforce academy in Moorhead in the old Sam's Club building. "Why can't we cooperate?" he asked.
County Administrator Robert Wilson said he was working on a report on the academy and funding that he would have ready by mid-October, while Montplaisir said in an interview after the meeting that the legality of using county funds for a school operation is still being studied by the state's attorney.