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Dickinson's debt - $3.1M - is low

Dickinson's low debt of $3.1 million has put the city in a prime position to handle upcoming expenses for infrastructure, officials said Friday.

"It shows that the city of Dickinson is basically debt-free," Dickinson City Commissioner Carson Steiner said. "We will have room to get out and get some bonds to help pay for those things. I think any city in the state would love to have those numbers."

The report was prepared by City Administrator Shawn Kessel and was based on information collected by the North Dakota Legislative Council. Dickinson, Williston, Minot, Fargo, West Fargo and Mandan voluntarily gave the council debt amounts, and Dickinson was the lowest of the six cities.

"From cities that I have had experience in, whether it's in Minnesota, North Dakota or Montana, that's a fairly low number," said Andy Peterson, North Dakota Chamber of Commerce president.

Dickinson's debt per capita is less than $175, according to the committee. That number is based on the 2010 Census. Since more people have to the area in response to a second oil boom, the actual debt per capita is lower," Kessel said.

"Our population is around 21,000," he said. "It's absolutely amazing when you think about the debt structure that we have."

Kessel said the city's debt has been low for the last few years.

Cities use debt as a tool plan for projects and to get bonds, Peterson said, adding cities need to use debt effectively, and planning is key.

"They're experiencing a lot of people coming to town. They are experiencing a lot of businesses coming to town," Peterson said. "Where do we want to be five years, 10 years down the road? Now is the time for those discussions and it sounds as if they're starting to have those kinds of things."

Dickinson had special assessment debt from an oil boom in the 1980s, which was defaulted on, Kessel said.

"The city took that debt and had to deal with it, and it was about $20 million," he said. "If you don't have that kind of debt, that means it puts the city at very little risk or the citizens at very little risk for default."

Dickinson will pay off its debt for the West River Community Center this year. The $12 million project opened May 14, 2004. Dickinson residents also voted in 2008 to contribute $6 million in sales tax to the Badlands Activities Center. The $16 million center opened in June 2010.

Dickinson is expected to accumulate $21.5 million over the next two years, according to the committee. Projects include the $33.5 million wastewater treatment facility, which is scheduled to be completed in June 2014. The per capita debt is expected to be about $1,383 in two years.

"It puts us at a per capita as still being the lowest of all those cities that are represented on that chart, which, of course, are most of the population centers in North Dakota," Kessel said. "Even with that debt, which is still not significant when you compare it to the others, (it) will be low."

The wastewater treatment facility will not present general obligation debt, Kessel added.

Past and current employees deserve credit for keeping the debt low, Kessel said.

"We have one of the strongest balance sheets in North Dakota," he said. "That means we are able to weather any unforeseen things like the tornado three years ago. Hopefully that makes people feel more comfortable."