Mike Jacobs: Home rule will make county government better
As one who’s spent as much time at county commission meetings over the years as many commissioners, I am all for it.
Having sat through county commission meetings in at least a fourth of North Dakota’s counties – maybe a third, maybe close to half – I can say emphatically that I do not want to be a county commissioner.
I can say equally emphatically that I admire those who do. It’s an important job, and more than that. It’s vital.
In half a century covering county commission meetings I’ve learned that just about every issue comes to the commission.
I’ve listened to big dreams, including the “Grand Sky” initiative that’s come to fruition at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
I’ve also heard disputes about shelterbelts encroaching on other people’s property. And I’ve listened to discussions of gravel contracts, many, many, many many of those, and every one of them important.
Of course, I’ve heard a lot of wind blowing through commission meeting rooms. County commissioners spend a lot of time together, and they get to know each other well. Quite a lot of commission meeting time is spent razzing one another.
All of this is prelude to the point of this column. The point is that the pending Grand Forks County Commission election is worth paying attention to.
My casual lawn sign survey suggests that there’s more interest in the commission than in any of the statewide offices on the ballot in the coming election. For sure, lawn signs backing one or another of the six candidates for the Grand Forks County Commission are very much more visible than signs for legislative races or for the top-of-the-ticket candidates for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
A stroll down my street confirms this. As of Sunday afternoon, there was one sign for John Hoeven for U.S. Senate, one for Katrina Christianson and one for Rick Becker. They are the Republican, the Democrat and independent candidates, in that order.
There were no signs backing any Grand Forks County Commission candidates – until I turned the corner. Then there were signs for commission candidates.
To be sure, a lot is at stake in the commission race, and not just for the six candidates. The really big issue is the proposed county home rule charter. Pretty much every candidate has an opinion, as a forum among candidates reported in the Herald on Oct. 12 made clear.
There are actually two questions, the home rule charter and a county sales tax.
The commission distributed an information placard addressed to “Residential customers.” The placard proclaims that Home Rule (the capitalization is provided) “is a governmental designation that provides local governments and citizens with additional power and authority to govern themselves through a local charter, much like a local Constitution.” Capitalization supplied, once again. “This designation means greater local control”
As one who’s spent as much time at county commission meetings over the years as many commissioners, I am all for it. The home rule charter will make county commissioners more responsible to voters, since it allows referral of issues and recall of commissioners, should those options ever become appropriate. It also limits commission members to three four-year terms. I’m not a term limits fan ordinarily, because term limits force experienced officeholders out just about the time they’ve figured out how the county works, in this case, or statewide offices in the case of an initiated measure on the ballot this year.
The more attractive aspect of home rule is the ability to levy a sales tax. Of course, this makes some commission candidates shudder. It ought to please taxpayers, though. It spreads the burden of financing county government across a wider range of taxpayers, specifically those nonresidents who come to Grand Forks for shopping, entertainment and athletic contests. All of these folks use county services and none of them pays for them. That burden falls on property owners, because the county currently is dependent on property tax revenues.
A sales tax is easier to pay, which ought to be as attractive to taxpayers as it is to tax collectors. It also increases the revenue coming to the county for essential services.
Much of the attention in this regard is on a new juvenile detention center and additions to the county correctional center, which is overcrowded.
The sales tax would also help to maintain roads and bridges.
The sales tax – half a cent – is a separate issue. To achieve the tax relief the commission has promised, both the home rule charter and the sales tax have to pass. In other words, two “Yes” votes are necessary.
Passage of the sales tax will bring a reduction of seven mills in the property tax levied here. The county’s flier says the reduction will be $63 on a $200,000 house.
The sales tax is expected to generate $5 million per year. Sixty percent of that would fund building projects, 20% would go to roads and bridges and 20% would relieve property taxes.
All of this seems complicated, but it’s really not. The home rule charter will make government more effective. It’s that simple, no matter which of the candidates are elected on Nov. 8.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.