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Our View: Opportunity can’t be tabled

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opinion Dickinson, 58602
The Dickinson Press
(701) 225-4205 customer support
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

You can either pretend a boom isn’t happening, or you can accept it and try to grow with it.

One has to wonder if the Belfield City Council is trying its best to adapt to development in western North Dakota or if it is simply flipping the page without giving it so much as a glance.

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Why would anyone question this? Just look at the city’s agenda. There were more than 30 items on the list. That’s comparable to the city of Dickinson’s agenda.

This is a busy time for the area, so Belfield should have a lot on its plate, right? Well, more than half those items are old business. The board continuously looks at permits, requests and ordinances and either tables or votes them down, as if inviting anything new into the area would hurt them.

This isn’t the first time the city of Belfield has turned down opportunity. In 2005, the council denied a request to rezone a piece of land just outside of town as recreational. The land would have been used for North Dakota’s only quarter-mile drag strip and would have brought revenue to the area.

“I thought it was an opportunity to put Belfield on the map and it would be a mini economic boom,” then-Mayor Susan Heck told The Press.

But others thought differently. Former councilman Floyd McDaniel said he was in favor of the drag strip, but not in the location.

“My reason is there’s a possibility of losing future funding in southwest North Dakota,” he said. “I think the citizens of Belfield need to come to a conclusion of what they want to do with it (the Heart River Project.) At this point, I think we should leave it the way it is.”

And leave it the city did. Belfield threw away a chance to bring in the business, which, in turn, failed to bring in customers for local companies and opportunities to attract future shops, not to mention generate tax revenue and quality of life.

Another example was a street improvement project that was discussed in 2009. A $900,000 proposal failed “due to 60 percent of the residents in the project area protesting,” the council said. Mayor Leo Schneider said he was disappointed, adding it needs to be done. Residents said in letters they wanted the streets fixed, but they couldn’t afford it.

“We’ll work on fixing the streets,” he said. “Maybe we’ll try it again (later).”

However, it’s been more than five years since the city has tried again. If you travel the streets of Belfield, you will notice that potholes are repaired with scoria and the pavement is uprooted from the tires of semis. We can understand that a city must be conscious about spending, especially in recession. But in a boom, especially in a town that is receiving so much traffic, there has to be funds to tap into from the state, and the city has to consider whether it wants to be popular with its people or if it wants to protect them from accidents, as well as properly use their tax dollars.

And now the oil boom has taken over. Some cities have handled the growth incredibly well. Others have not. Some have been overrun and some have taken the opportunity to grow and improve quality of life.

Belfield appears to be struggling. Look at former city auditor Cindy Ewoniuk, who resigned for health issues.

“Nobody wants to follow the rules,” she said during a meeting. “In the past two weeks, people have been coming down the steps screaming at me. I go home and do my work all night because I listen to people scream all day.”

No city employee should have to deal with that, and we commend Ewoniuk for putting up with it for as long as she did.

But Ewoniuk said the city has struggled to keep up with disobedient landowners, and that tells the public that city staff are overworked. We understand that it is hard to find people to work for smaller towns, but the city needs to find a way to handle its business better. It needs to decide how to enforce its codes and the law, even if that means adding more staff.

Instead, leaders are worrying that bad people are coming in, they try to hide the fact that a police officer is doing inappropriate things while on duty and they discuss where the punch holes of a permit should go on a piece of paper.

The council wastes time hiding the truth from the public — like when it spent 90 minutes in an executive session to fire a police officer for having sexual intercourse on duty — rather than trying to find ways to handle the boom.

An opinion from state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem states the council spent 30 minutes reviewing documents on the incident and then spent another 20 minutes discussing how to handle press inquiries and how to fix community relationships. They should try to be in touch with the community, but holding secret meetings is not going to gain anyone’s trust.

Belfield has a great opportunity to grow — it is at the intersection two heavily-traveled highways and is at the edge of oil boom activity. This boom isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Businesses want to build in towns like Belfield. We know that the city can’t allow everyone to set up shop and it needs to be cautious about attracting the wrong people.

At the same time, they can’t reject everyone that comes in, and they can’t keep tabling every permit while the councilmen sit on their hands. People are moving to the town, whether they like it or not. Things are changing fast.

The city has two options: it can either control the growth responsibly and profit or it can ignore it is even happening and watch as the town deteriorates.

Belfield needs leadership, and it needs to step up now.

Publisher Harvey Brock, Managing Editor Dustin Monke and Assistant Editor April Baumgarten are members of The Dickinson Press Editorial Board.

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