Tension in Griggs County: All-new county leaders slash budgets and, some say, create climate of fear
COOPERSTOWN — Four months after voters replaced all five Griggs County commissioners in a recall election, the replacements have been busy slashing the budget, cutting jobs and trying to implement a controversial construction project that they had opposed.
“We’re doing all we can to make sure taxes don’t increase,” said Commissioner John Wakefield, one of the five who took office in October. “We hope we don’t have to and we won’t, unless we get approval from the taxpayers.”
The new commissioners say they hope to avoid a $500,000 to $1 million budget deficit that the county could face when a new $3.5 million courthouse and emergency operations center is completed and the old courthouse is either demolished or preserved.
Voters had opposed the project three times, but the County Commission at the time pushed it through anyway, saying it was necessary for the good of the county; voters then recalled the commissioners. Those former commissioners remain on the Griggs County Building Authority, a private, nonprofit group they created to oversee the project and issue bonds to pay for it.
They contend the county’s finances are stable, the project is on budget and that the new commissioners are creating an atmosphere of fear among county employees with the budget slashing.
“They campaigned by saying taxes were going to double, that we would have a debt of $300,000 or $500,000,” said Ron Halvorson, the Building Authority’s chairman and former County Commission chairman before his defeat by Wakefield. “After a while, people start to believe it.
“Well, when taxpayers got their statements, they saw their taxes went down. Not only that, but the county ended the year with a surplus of more than $170,000. To this day, they haven’t told anybody where they’re getting their numbers.”
The Griggs County Courthouse was built in 1883 and remains North Dakota’s oldest courthouse still functioning as a courthouse. The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977.
In 2010, county officials debated the fate of the courthouse after mold-related health issues in the lower level forced the county’s social services and sheriff’s departments to relocate. While structurally sound, the three-story building is also not handicap accessible and has a leaking roof that’s causing long-term damage, among other issues.
Since then, county voters have rejected three proposals to either remodel the historic courthouse or build a new one, even though a federal grant paying for most of the new emergency operations center would reduce the burden for local taxpayers.
The former county commissioners planned a fourth election in March 2013 but, instead, decided to form the Building Authority to go ahead with the construction project.
That prompted a group of county residents to launch a recall campaign in spring 2013. Few, if anyone, expected all five commissioners to be defeated.
Once elected, it didn’t take long for the new County Commission to chart a new course.
In November, commissioners got rid of Assistant State’s Attorney Marina Spahr. She had been an integral part of the planning for the new courthouse and EOC. Griggs County now gets legal services from the Nelson County State’s Attorney’s Office on a part-time basis.
The commission also eliminated a legal secretary’s position in the state’s attorney’s office in mid-January.
Connie MacKenzie, who had been with the county since 1998, also served as the county’s zoning officer for the past six years. Her combined salary for both positions was about $36,000 annually.
“After 15 and a half years of working for the county, I got two days’ notice,” she said.
County Tax Equalization Director Barbara Anderson will leave her job after Friday. She submitted her resignation after the County Commission cut her position from full-time to three-fifths, or 24 hours per week.
“I can’t do my job in that amount of time,” she said.
Being a part-time employee means she will also receive no benefits, such as health insurance or retirement savings.
She has accepted a job in the health care field, in which she worked before starting with the county five years ago.
“My biggest problem is with the new commission cutting jobs,” Anderson said, “and the lack of respect we’ve been receiving from the new commissioners. Not one of them came into my office to see what we do in our job.
“We all used to work together. We got our work done, but it was fun,” she said. “It’s not fun anymore. There’s nothing but stress.”
These are just a few of the big changes under the new commissioners. More changes may be ahead.
The new commissioners now propose to combine the county’s auditor and treasurer positions, beginning in 2015. Both currently are elected positions.
The decision coincides with County Auditor Cindy Anton’s decision not to seek re-election in November. The $28,000 set aside in her budget to train her replacement has also been cut by commissioners.
“We’re going to lose some good people from the county, and we’ll never get them back,” Sheriff Bob Hook said.
Commissioner Wakefield said the County Commission is examining all positions with an eye toward making county government as streamlined as possible. He disputes claims that the commission has been anything less than open, saying the commission asked department heads for suggestions on how to cut their budgets.
“There have been some changes and we’re trying to combine some offices to try and save some money,” he said. “We’re always looking for ways to be more prudent with the taxpayer’s dollar. Obviously, that causes some tension.
“But at the very end of all of this, we have to keep in mind that we’re all working for the taxpayers, and whatever is beneficial to them has to be beneficial to us, because we all are taxpayers.”
Halvorson said the new commission is going too far.
“I really feel that our county employees have just as much right to make a decent living,” he said. “The main thing is, at the end of the month, they should be able to pay their bills like everyone else does. It’s just not fair to them. I just don’t feel these commissioners have any compassion at all for our county employees.”
“The problem is we have five people who don’t know what they’re doing,” said Diane Cowdrey, who was Cooperstown’s city auditor for 18 years.
She also served on the County Commission from 2008 to 2012, before being defeated by Halvorson. She supports the courthouse and EOC project and the former commissioners who pushed it.
“They’re really just jumping in full bore without any forethought to what they’re doing,” Cowdrey said of the new commissioners. “I’m just appalled at the way they’re treating their employees. They almost made the former commissioners sound like criminals. They made it sound as though the county was almost destitute. Well, it’s not.”
Besides their disagreement over how the county should be run, the former county commissioners on the Building Authority also disagree with the new County Commission over how the courthouse and emergency operations center project should be run.
The commission has been contending for several months that the Building Authority’s management of the project is putting at risk a federal grant paying for most of the EOC.
Of the $3.5 million project total, $1.3 million pays for the EOC. The county is responsible for 25 percent and the rest comes from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant administered by the state Department of Emergency Services. (The remaining $2.2 million, which pays for the courthouse portion of the project, is financed by a 20-year bond the county is paying off.)
The County Commission points to a November memorandum from the state, which says that money from the EOC grant cannot be mixed with the Building Authority’s construction dollars for any project other than the EOC.
The commissioners also question whether contractors are paying prevailing wages, as the grant requires.
Greg Wilz, state Homeland Security Division director, said the County Commission has contacted his office several times over the past few months over the EOC grant issues. He also has been in touch with the Building Authority.
“I provided them with a list of concerns. They were trying to address them,” Wilz said, adding that this is the first EOC grant of this kind he has dealt with since he became director in 2006.
Sheriff Hook, who is serving as construction manager for the Building Authority, said rules are being followed. “There’s no issue with the EOC grant or any kind of co-mingling of funds.”
On Friday, the County Commission agreed to send to the state the first of several requests for payment from the EOC grant. It also sent a cover letter explaining that the county is on the path to compliance with all aspects of the grant, according to Eslinger, the county treasurer.
Commissioners Wakefield and Ron Dahl say they are confident the issues can be worked out and that the courthouse and EOC project will be completed soon.
“We’ve heard people say we want to stop this project,” Wakefield said. “If we stop this project, we would be costing the taxpayers’ money. Whatever my personal beliefs might be from a financial standpoint, it is in the taxpayers’ best interest to finish this project.”
Dahl added, “I’m very optimistic this is going to be built, but we’re going to hold their nose to the grindstone to make sure they do it legally.”
He said he also wants to put a measure on the November ballot that addresses the future of the old courthouse.
“I don’t know what we’d put on the ballot, but we want to know what people think,” he said. “Do you want to tear it down? Do you want to fix it, refurbish it and rent it out? But whatever it is, it’s just got to be on the ballot and let the citizens decide whatever we do with it.”
Because the new commissioners took office in midterm, they won’t serve four full years before facing re-election.
Commissioners Wakefield, Dahl and Dale Pederson face re-election in November. Commissioners Troy Olson and Shawn Steffen are up in 2016.
Wakefield and Dahl have indicated they’ll run again. The filing deadline for the June primary election is April 7.
“If the voters want to replace me, they sure can. I just want to stick up for what I believe in,” Dahl said.
All five new commissioners decided not to take a salary from the county this year. That money, which amounts to a total of $57,500, was reallocated to other areas of the budget.
“That was the biggest cut we made,” Wakefield said. “To me, it’s a public service, and I’ll follow through until the job is done, or until voters tell me I’m through.”
Halvorson, who lost in the recall, said he has no plans to be on the ballot.
“My family won’t allow it,” he said. “It’s things like that that make my blood pressure go way up. Since all this election stuff started a year ago, I’ve been to the doctor four times now, had seven stents put in,” the last one about two weeks ago.
He said, however, that he will work to find alternative candidates to challenge the present commissioners.
“If we don’t replace them, in the end, they’re going to ruin our county,” he said. “All it boils down is good, common sense.”