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West Fargo sales tax ballot measure faces growing citizen scrutiny

Some residents complain city staff involvement and messaging violates state law; city officials argue they are just providing information.

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West Fargo resident Steve Marquart asks a question during the Public Safety Sales Tax meeting at Prairie Heights Church on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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WEST FARGO — Some West Fargoans are voicing concerns about how city officials have informed citizens about a half-cent sales tax measure and others are questioning if West Fargo taxpayers are being misled about the Nov. 8 ballot question.

West Fargoans are deciding whether to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund the city's police and fire departments. City commissioners voted in September to add the measure to the ballot. Since then, the city has circulated information through its website, in the West Fargo Focus newspaper and via appearances by public employees.

One such appearance was by the police and fire chiefs at a town hall meeting Thursday, Oct. 27, at Prairie Heights Church in West Fargo.

Since last week, several residents have sent emails to commissioners, The Forum and other officials questioning the city's information and its distribution methods.

At last week's meeting, Police Chief Denis Otterness spoke in uniform alongside other uniformed police officers who stood among audience members. At the start of the meeting, West Fargo Commissioner Brad Olson said Fire Chief Dan Fuller was on call that evening and could be called out at any time.

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North Dakota Century Code 44-08-19 states, "No public employee may engage in political activities while on duty or in uniform." Section 39-01-04 broadly defines "political activities" to include distributing "political literature."

West Fargo City Attorney John Shockley addressed the legality in a memo to The Forum, city commissioners and Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick. Shockley said the chiefs did not violate state law because they did not advocate a position on the measure and only provided facts about it.

"The city’s intent was not to advocate for or against or otherwise reflect a position, but rather to provide factual information regarding the budgetary constraints seen by the police department and fire department and the impact these budgets are having on the city’s general fund," Shockley said in the memo.

Prior to the meeting and after advertisements in recent editions of the West Fargo Focus, residents began to publicly question the city's communication tactics and facts about the sales tax measure.

In an email response to one resident's questioning of the the advertisement, City Administrator Tina Fisk said she conferred with Shockley and the city is allowed to "provide factual information" in the advertisement.

Some residents have said the information coming from public employees seems to reflect an encouragement to approve the measure.

Resident Tom Woollweever said city staff statements made at the recent meeting appeared to violate state law.

"It seems pretty clear to me that this is an attempt to advocate for a yes vote and, unless I am reading it incorrectly, that is a violation of the NDCC which prohibits any city staff employee from using their position to influence the vote," Woollweever said in an email to city commissioners.

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Eric Gjerdevig, a former city commissioner, said the city's messaging has been misleading voters.

"It also says that the tax will ‘alleviate pressure on property taxes.’ That statement is designed to bias people towards voting for the measure," Gjerdevig said. "First, city staff shouldn’t be trying to bias anyone. Secondly, it’s not true. The City Commission sets the budget and the property tax rate. There is zero guarantee that passing this tax will either increase or decrease your property tax."

Gjerdevig went on:

"When city staff is on the radio saying 'we need to have citizens vote yes to fund our fire protection,' it’s total fear-mongering. They suggest this same thought in other places such as their website. The city can, should, and will fund our fire and police departments in an appropriate way regardless of this vote. Again, the City Commission controls staffing, budget and tax rates. To suggest that we won’t have adequate protection without a yes vote goes beyond inappropriate."

Clarifying the facts

The city's website and a printed pamphlet handed out by Otterness list the fast-growing West Fargo School District as a reason why additional fire and police staffing is needed. The pamphlet says, "There are only two SROs (school resource officers) for 16 elementary schools."

West Fargo School District Business Manager Levi Bachmeier requested commissioners look into the communications regarding the school district and change it, although no changes were made as of Friday, Oct. 28.

In an email to Commissioner Brad Olson sent last month, Bachmeier wrote, "We want to be sure that if the district’s students were being specifically marketed as beneficiaries of the proposal, that the budget plan would increase the number of SROs to honor that messaging. Our understanding is that the SRO program wouldn’t be impacted, so we just want to ensure the messaging aligns with the plans."

It is not a common practice nationwide to have individual SROs at the grade school levels, said School District Spokeswoman Heather Leas. West Fargo Schools has one SRO per middle school and high school for a total of six SROs dedicated to the secondary level.

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The school district employs a total of eight SROs across the district, the same amount as Bismarck Public Schools. According to a memorandum of understanding between the West Fargo Police Department and the West Fargo School District, the school district pays 100% of salary and benefits for two officers; 75% of salary and benefits for five officers and 50% for one officer. Next year, the 50% salary of one officer will increase to 100%.

"That equates to $656,503.85 that WFPS will pay the city for SRO services this school year," Leas said.

At Thursday's town hall meeting, Otterness said there "has been some information out there" regarding the SRO positions, and the department is not trying to mislead.

However, he did not acknowledge that the information he referenced has been produced by the city. He confirmed that additional SRO positions are not "tied" to the sales tax. He said additional patrol staffing could indirectly benefit the school district as increased patrol would add more security overall.

"The sales tax and the funding model for SROs are like railroad tracks: they don't cross," Otterness said. "The funding for additional school resource officers is entirely a school district decision, because that is the entity that pays for it."

The West Fargo School District, which encompasses not only the city of West Fargo but large parts of Fargo, all of Horace, Harwood, Reile's Acres and rural areas, has passed more than $200 million in bonding referendums since 2015 to not only build new schools and keep up with student growth but increase safety protocols throughout the district.

When the $98.1 million bond passed in 2015 and the $106.9 million bond passed in 2018, both were done with minimal impact on the school district's mill levy because the district timed the bonds to coincide with former retiring debt and the mill valuations continued to increase.

School officials estimated in 2018 that the mill levy would need to increase about 3.51 mills, or about $16 per $100,000 home value, but the district ended up keeping its mill levy flat in recent years. In August, the school district decreased its 2023 mill levy by seven mills as a result of higher mill valuations and other savings.

According to the city website, the sales tax is proposed to "alleviate pressure on property taxes," a point some residents have taken issue with as the city has not expressly promised to not raise its mill levy or property taxes in the future.

The sales tax would generate a considerable amount of money for the two departments. It is expected to generate about $3.68 million in the first full year and about $4.25 million in 2026, said West Fargo Communications Director Melissa Richard.

According to the city, an additional 15.02 mills would be needed to fund the two departments over the next two years. The city website says, "Using 2022 numbers, property taxes would increase by $270 for police and fire alone on a $400,000 house between 2022 and 2026."

However, the city's mill valuation increased from $198,650 per mill in 2022 to $234,434 for 2023. The increased mill valuation equaled about $2.4 million in additional revenue to the city for 2023.

Richard said the 2022 numbers were used because the city first started looking at a potential sales tax in late 2021. The 2023 mill values were presented to the commission at its last meeting June 28. The commission passed its 2023 preliminary budget Aug. 1 and approved adding the sales tax measure to the ballot in September.

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A screenshot of the West Fargo city page with information about the upcoming sales tax measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.

"The amount of time it took putting it on the ballot did put us into the 2023 budget cycle," Richard said. "It's not a matter of trying to be misleading, it's a matter of when we were talking about it, those were the numbers we had. The commissioners took this very, very seriously."

The city's literature says additional traffic officers would be hired with the sales tax money to address "quality of life issues" such as speeding or other traffic violations.

While the city has stressed a large increase in calls for service over the past 10 years, according to the West Fargo Police annual reports, crime numbers have been on a decline the past three years, and the city of West Fargo has been named the "Safest City in North Dakota" for at least three years in a row.

In a television news interview, Otterness said the city is "still running on the same staffing levels as it was 10 years ago." He also referenced staff numbers during the town hall meeting.

According to the 2013 police annual report, the city population was more than 29,600 and there were 50 police employees of which 40 were sworn officers and 10 were civilian staff. The police department is currently authorized to employ 69 sworn police officers, three police dogs, 13 civilian employees and seven volunteers.

The 2023 city budget was approved with the addition of five patrol officers and a records specialist for the police department.

In an interview with The Forum, Otterness clarified that he meant the force operates on the same patrol staffing levels as it did in the past, meaning the number of patrol vehicles on shift during the day. He would like to increase that number by about 40%.

"It's a capacity issue, just being able to respond to the increased number of calls," Otterness said.

The West Fargo Fire Department became a part of the city with full-time employees in 2018, at which time it also added responses to medical calls. The department will add about 17 firefighters in 2023 when it opens its new $20 million headquarters that is funded by bonds.

Now what?

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said his office does not handle complaints of election processes. Cass County State's Attorney Burdick said Monday he had received emails from concerned residents. He said he would be speaking to city attorney Shockley to gather the city's position on some of the questions raised and would move forward from there. As of press time, Burdick had not released more information.

North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said election violations would be handled by the Cass County State's Attorney, but his office would take action if asked to issue an opinion on the matter. No complaints had been filed with his office as of last week.

Gjerdevig said West Fargo taxpayers may lose regardless of whether the measure is approved. He said if the city does not reduce its spending, a failed sales tax measure can be used as an excuse to increase property taxes in the future.

"I’ve said in the first city meeting on this that we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem," Gjerdevig said. "I still believe that is true. I’m a big supporter of our police and fire departments but they are being used in this situation. Passing this tax will likely increase budgets across the board and grow city government.

"A much better approach would have been to pass a sales tax to specifically pay off the bond that is funding the fire station," he said. "That would have been responsible, and the tax would have been sunsetted when the bond was paid off."

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A pamphlet distributed by the West Fargo Police Department cites school resource safety as a benefit of passing the half cent sales tax although the West Fargo School District funds officer positions and additional school resource officers will not be paid for with sales tax money.

READ MORE FROM WEST FARGO EDITOR WENDY REUER
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Readers can reach West Fargo editor Wendy Reuer at wreuer@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5530 . Follow her on Twitter @ForumWendy .

Related Topics: WEST FARGO
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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