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Bowman County Courthouse
104 1st St NW
Bowman, ND 58623

More taxes coming

October 07, 2016

Jerry Jeffers, a candidate for Bowman County Commissioner, takes the podium during the Oct. 4 special meeting of the county to discuss budgetary issues. (Pioneer Photo by Bryce Martin)Jerry Jeffers, a candidate for Bowman County Commissioner, takes the podium during the Oct. 4 special meeting of the county to discuss budgetary issues. (Pioneer Photo by Bryce Martin)

By BRYCE MARTIN
Pioneer Editor | bmartin@countrymedia.net

While everyone is required to pay taxes, not many understand them, which often leads to concern for taxpayers whenever the word “increase” is used.

That was true this week for Bowman County, which finalized and approved its 2017 budget that includes an 18 percent increase in mills for all county property owners. A sizable crowd was expected, based upon the extra seating for the public arranged in the commissioner quarters, but only a handful turned out for the public budget hearing Oct. 4.

A look at where your taxpayer dollars go.
A look at where your taxpayer dollars go.

“All of our revenue sources went to hell on us,” said Commissioner Lynn Brackel during the public meeting. “They all took a plunge.”

In 2016, the county levied about $1.4 million in taxes. This year, for its 2017 budget, that amount was increased by $272,000, spread out amongst all taxpayers of the county, to roughly $1.7 million.

The mill levy, which is the tax rate applied to the assessed value of a property, increased by 18 percent to a total of 61.62 mills.

One mill is valued at $26,813, a decrease of $1,259 since the 2016 budget.

In an effort to keep tax increases to a minimum, the county called for no changes in salaries or wages and for a 5 percent reduction across all departments’ operational budgets. The county projected, however, an increase of 17.5 percent in costs for employee health benefits.

Causing the tax increase were several items uncontrollable at the county level, including lower property valuations, decreasing aid from the state and increasing costs of services.

A large decrease in the county’s centrally assessed property, on things such as pipelines, wind turbines and railroads, coupled with an increase in the county’s real estate values translated to an overall valuation decrease of $1.3 million.

Property taxes vary wildly — they are dependent upon the amounts and sizes of properties owned — so county taxpayers could either see a slight increase or one more substantial. The amount also depends on the taxpayers’ township.

Commissioner Ken Steiner, who lives east of Scranton, told The Pioneer following the meeting that the taxes on one quarter of his land, or 160 acres, would increase by $59. He noted, however, that figuring the tax increase is heavily reliant on location.

To better understand the tax increase, for instance, a home within Bowman County with a true assessed value of $100,000 would see an increase of $49.26 in annual property taxes owed to the county, which does not include other taxing entities such as the cities, schools or parks and recreation. That amount is computed, according to Bowman County Auditor Sandi Tivis, by using the property’s true value multiplied by the mill levy rate increase, a standard practice across the state.

A notable item in the budget was the large amount that the county was required to pay for lodging inmates, particularly related to the homicide that occurred late this summer in Bowman. The county increased its jail budget by $75,000, to just over $160,000.

“It costs $80 a day, per person to have them in jail,” explained Rick Braaten, chairman of the county commission.

Just last month, the county was fitted with an $11,000 bill from the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Facility in Dickinson, which included incarceration fees for Chase Swanson and Madison West.

Pending those two cases head to trial, the county would be responsible for paying costs related to their imprisonment throughout the duration of court proceedings.

Another major factor contributing to the budget woes was a 30 percent reduction in state aid due to the decrease in state and local sales tax dollar and the reduction in oil and gas revenue.

“Oil’s not going to go up anytime soon,” Braaten stated.

The county’s funds from the Bureau of Land Management, which goes to support various projects around the county, also saw a significant decrease, causing the commissioners to freeze any allocations from the fund until it reaches $4 million.

In March 2015, the county received a $992,000 check from the BLM; in September, that dipped to just above $200,000.

Despite the increase in taxes, the county is not levying mills at the state-allowed maximums, which if it did would further increase the tax burden.

“A lot of it boils down to what kind of services we want in the county,” Brackel said. “Do we want those services? And how are they going to be paid.”

Those, he said, were the types of decisions the commissioners had to make while considering the annual budget.

While no departments or employees were eliminated, Brackel suggested that if the poor economic climate continues, the county would have to cut employees, road crew, social services, weed board or others. “Where do we start and who do we cut?”

Three audience members took the podium following discussion by the commissioners, including Jerry Jeffers who is running to fill one of the three commission spots up for grabs in the November election, but they mostly thanked the commissioners for doing their job. No members of the public voiced opposition towards the budget during the meeting.

Bill Bowman was the only commissioner to vote against approving the budget, but he clearly indicated his reasoning prior to the vote, saying he didn’t want to leave his post as commissioner with a greater tax burden on the people.

“Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been very conscientious of what people have to pay,” Bowman said. “I know we have needs … but because I’m not a part of next year’s budget … I don’t want to do that to the people and so I can’t support it.

“I can go in and find all kinds of places that I think we could cut, but I’m not going to do it. This isn’t my decision to make.”

Bowman’s final term as commissioner, since he opted to retire from his position, ends this year.

“This has been a difficult road for us these last two months,” Brackel said. “We’re going to try to keep the services coming that are expected from the county.”

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