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Bill would merge counties

BISMARCK -- North Dakotans from every corner of the state packed a Capitol hearing room Thursday to blast the latest urban legislators' plan to force county mergers.

BISMARCK -- North Dakotans from every corner of the state packed a Capitol hearing room Thursday to blast the latest urban legislators' plan to force county mergers.

House Bill 1209's plan to combine 39 of the state's 53 counties into "multi-county districts" is ill-informed and unnecessary, said county officials and residents. It would abandon 20 courthouses and county seat towns to an unknown fate.

North Dakota counties already are combining and cooperating on services, opponents of the bill said.

"It looks like a mud-on-the-wall approach," Pembina County Commissioner Mac Halcrow told the House Political Subdivisions Committee. Holding up a copy of the bill, he said, "I wrote down the names of the sponsors and where they come from. This is big versus little. It's a turkey."

The bill's sponsors are from Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Dickinson.


Halcrow said the counties already cooperating on joint services and adopting other efficiencies could show state officials how it's done.

The state wouldn't be in its current budget shortfall if it had done some of the same things, he said.

By day's end the committee voted 10-4 to send the bill to the House floor with a "do not pass" recommendation.

Rep. Dave Weiler, R-Bismarck, is the prime sponsor of the bill.

"North Dakota has too much government," he said. "Maybe the problem began with the founders of our state. Maybe they thought that North Dakota would someday have a population large enough to support all 53 counties. "

Instead of the 1.3 million population some predicted in pioneer days, the state has never topped 680,000, he said.

Rep. Mary Ekstrom, R-Fargo, another sponsor, said, "something has to be done to build a sustainable future for our state."

Weiler's bill is reminiscent of West Fargo legislator Jay Lindgren's 1993 proposal for the state to create 15 "supercounties."


But Weiler says his plan does not consolidate counties. Each of the 53 counties would still keep their names. The residents of the merged counties he proposes would have to vote to decide which one gets to keep the county seat. The losers would have their courthouses shut down and abandoned.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Counties, said the plan is probably unconstitutional. At least three sections of the constitution appear to block it, including one prohibiting the Legislature from moving county seats. Having the Legislature dictate forced marriages "would be a political nightmare for all of us," he said.

The counties have been using the 1991 "tool chest" legislation allowing them to combine offices and restructure their services, said Johnson and other county officials. This has led to profound changes in county government, he said.

Counties already do more with less. Allowing for inflation, he said, county expenditures have remained flat from 1985 to 2000. Property taxes have risen disproportionately because of dropping state and federal funding.

Kathy Hogan, director of Cass County Social Services, agreed. County social services operations already share directors, secretaries and other expenses, she said.

The county mergers Weiler proposes would disrupt several cooperative agreements many counties already have, Hogan and Johnson said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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