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West Fargoans express frustration with city at capital improvement plan meeting

The city held two public input meetings to discuss its capital improvement plan

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WEST FARGO — Residents expressed frustration with the transparency and ways to give input to West Fargo leaders at a recent meeting to discuss the city's five-year plan for capital improvements.

West Fargo hosted two town hall forums on the city’s capital improvement plan Tuesday, April 26, one at noon and a second evening meeting. The city is considering investing more than $180 million over the next five years into the city's infrastructure, which includes the lagoon decommissioning project, repaving and street repairs, as well as building a potential new city hall building.

"The frustration is palpable ... in this room. You can touch it," one woman said at the noon meeting. "People don't know what they can do to weigh in with their opinions as to how the money is being spent by the city."

"As I look over those 13 pages, I'm not really sure why this project is on here, what is the need, what is the issue," Lana Rakow said. "Even some explanation of why these projects are the priorities we should undertake would be very helpful, so that as a community we can really get a sense of ... the things we want to get done."

Mayor Bernie Dardis said while much of the plan comes from city staff, some plans are the result of public input.

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"If we're constantly getting complaints about a certain area, then we raise those complaints to the administration," he said. "It's an ongoing dialogue of people's wishes and what services they believe there should be."

Finance Director Jim Larson said about 36% of the funding needed comes from sanitary and sewer funds, and the capital improvement sales tax will pay for 25% of the needs in the next five years. Utility funds will provide 15% of the funding, and those funds come from sewer and water fees or the rates that are charged. The city would be able to cover about $181.4 million, but it would need to cover a deficit of about $3 million over the next three years.

At the noon meeting, resident Brad Schmidt asked the commission if it would consider putting any future building projects to a vote from the public.

Dardis said at this time, he could not answer that question. He said the city has projected it will need more room to add additional city staff in the future but it has not discussed building projects in depth.

Schmidt also asked the commission to release a more detailed list of the projects and cost estimates. Assistant City Administrator and former City Engineer Dustin Scott said the city has not always published early cost estimates because they can change before the project is considered.

Scott has said while a number of projects are included in the capital improvement plan, each individual project comes before the commission for approval over time. The cost estimates can change dramatically over time, he added.

"These are very high-level estimates," Scott said. "I cannot stress enough that each project you see on the CIP is individually brought before the City Commission to flesh out further financial details, the scope of the work, the timing of that work. As a planning tool, we put together this list with the best information we have at the time. But it is volatile; it changes, and it changes at the direction of the City Commission at an individual project basis."

For example, Dardis said, some bids offered to the city have notations that the bid is only good for a week or so due to high rising costs, supply chain issues and volatile markets. The city had estimated a new fire headquarters would cost around $10 million, but after bids were opened last month, the estimated cost rose to more than $17 million.

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At the noon meeting, resident Roben Anderson, who will be seeking election as a city commissioner in June, asked what the city will be doing about its core area, which is generally considered the area north of Interstate 94.

Scott said the city is seeking some outside funding sources such as grants to address the core area.

"We're doing our best to keep special assessments low," Scott said.

The commission was presented the five-year plan for infrastructure projects during a public meeting on March 10 and were expected to vote on the plan at its March 21 meeting. Instead, the commission tabled a vote and asked staff to set up additional public meetings.

Many attendees of the noon meeting were also concerned about how many special assessments could be placed on properties in the future to help pay for the projects.

Commissioner Brad Olson said the city is not looking to change its special assessment process, but the plan proposes funding 28% of the overall project list through special assessments.

"The CIP is merely a plan. There are no hard dollars tied to any of these projects. We're laying out what infrastructure we have to maintain," Olson said.

City commissioners are considering adding a half-cent sales tax to the November ballot. Commissioners said the additional tax would be dedicated to police and fire services, but it has not yet been defined if the tax could also be used to build additional buildings for public safety such as a new police headquarters. West Fargo's police headquarters is located at City Hall.

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A ballot question may be presented to the commission for approval at a regular meeting in May. The city's next meeting will be held Monday, May 2.

The commission has not guaranteed it will not raise its mill levy, which could increase individual taxes when it comes to the 2023 budget. A commissioner has expressed concern that the city will need to raise the mill levy in its 2023 budget to account for the cost of living increase the commission passed after approving its 2022 budget.

The CIP is available to view online at https://www.westfargond.gov/DocumentCenter/View/7568/2022-Capital-Improvement-Plan-Presented-March-22-2022 .

The two meetings were livestreamed and will be available on the city's YouTube channel.

As the West Fargo editor, Wendy Reuer covers all things West Fargo for The Forum and oversees the production of the weekly Pioneer.
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