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West Fargo passes its preliminary 2023 budget

The city is banking on a sales tax increase to pass in November

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West Fargo City Hall file photo
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WEST FARGO — Thanks to an increase in taxable valuation, the city of West Fargo isn't planning to raise its mill levy in 2023, but it is banking on taxpayers passing a half cent sales tax increase to be used for police and fire budgets.

City Administrator Tina Fisk said each city mill was worth $198,650 in 2022, and each one is equal to about $234,434 for 2023.
She said the 2022 mill levy was 72.69 mills, and there is no change to the total levy for 2023. Fisk said the change of mill values will increase the city's income by about $2.5 million.

Fisk said they are expecting to ask the commission to consider increases in water and sanitary fee increases in the future; however, those increases would not have to be finished as part of the overall budget that must be sent to the Cass County auditor by Aug. 10.

Since the preliminary budget was presented in July, Fisk said a few licensing fees and other fees could be increased and the fire department is going to pause a request for some new equipment. She said those changes will allow the city to decrease the transfer from special revenue funds from $1 million to $500,000.

The city also plans additional income due to interest. Interest income is about $1.5 million higher for 2023 than it was for 2022, Fisk said.

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The West Fargo City Commission is planning to ask voters to approve a half-cent city sales tax in November to be used for police and fire services. Financial Director Jim Larson has estimated if the sales tax passes, it could generate about $2.4 million in 2023.

"If the $2.4 million increase is not covered, if it has to be put in the budget, it would be an 11 mill increase," Fisk said.

"We will likely have to increase our mills tremendously in the upcoming years," Commissioner Brad Olson said. "We need that sales tax so we don't have to increase property taxes."

Commissioner Roben Anderson asked the other commissioners if it was a good idea to base the budget on a sales tax measure that has yet to pass.

"I kinda feel like we're counting our chickens before they hatch by building this into the budget before it passes," he said.

Fisk said the police and fire budgets have nothing to cut and called not growing the departments "a scary option."

While police and fire departments have cited a growing increase in service calls the past five years, the two departments have also added additional services and grown its staff each year. Crime rates have continually decreased in the city and the city's fire rating, which can affect insurance rates, has also improved.

The city is planning to add city staff in a number of departments in 2023, including one position for the assessing department, two engineering staff and an additional communications staff member.

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The preliminary budget includes adding five patrol officers and a record specialist for the police department, as well as 10 additional firefighters, an office coordinator and a fire inspector for the fire department. The fire department will open its new headquarters in 2023. It has 25 full-time and 33 part-time employees.

The police department is authorized to employ 69 sworn police officers, with three K-9 units, 13 civilian employees and seven volunteers. Police Chief Denis Otterness also hopes to implement a body camera program for officers in 2023.

Otterness estimated that the first year of the program would cost about $221,000, which includes the initial purchase of the cameras, hiring staff, additional training and other related equipment and installation costs. He estimated the cost of the program would be about $125,000 to $129,000 over the following four years.

The city is applying for a grant that would help cover the costs of the program and camera system. The grant, which would be funded through the Bureau of Justice Assistance, could offer up to $160,000.

The city library and airport did not ask for additional mills in 2023. The city human resources department is requesting $25,000 for a market data study. The city is planning to do a survey in 2023 after other entities have completed similar surveys in order to use similar data and save costs on the survey.

Earlier this year, the City Commission directed staff to plan for a 2% cost-of-living increase for staff in the 2023 preliminary budget.

The city will approve its final 2023 budget Oct. 1.

Readers can reach West Fargo editor Wendy Reuer at wreuer@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5530 . Follow her on Twitter @ForumWendy .

Related Topics: WEST FARGONORTH DAKOTA
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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