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Bill wants public buildings to go to vote

A bill in the North Dakota House aims to end the practice of major school district, park district, city and county construction projects being built without public votes.

House Bill 1295 is designed to prevent construction of projects, like Fargo's $43.4 million Judge Ronald N. Davies High School, without the approval of the people who will be taxed, lead sponsor Rep. Jim Kasper said Friday.

Projects using building authorities and other funding entities would have to be approved by at least 60 percent of voters, just as if a local government had to issue bonds, he said.

"It's time to allow the people to be back involved in making those building decisions on multi-million dollar structures," he said.

The Fargo Republican said some local governments are using building authorities to avoid votes.

However, a Fargo School District official said Davies wasn't funded using a building authority, and a West Fargo official said the law could limit financing flexibility.

Kasper said Fargo has built tens of millions of dollars worth of schools in the last decade "and the people have not had a single say into whether or not those schools should have been built.

"In the meantime, the property taxes have continued to escalate, and the people of our city, as well as in many other places in North Dakota want a say and should have a say in whether or not we're going to spend $40 (million) or $50 million to build a new structure," he said.

"So, the building authority has been a means in the city of Fargo and other cities in North Dakota whereby you can circumvent a vote of the people," Kasper said.

HB1295 also requires school districts to get large projects approved by the superintendent of public instruction.

The bill overrides home rule charter authority, but it does not apply to buildings for fire or police departments or emergency medical services, Kasper said.

Kasper said Davies High exposed faults in how special assessments are levied that may be addressed by lawmakers. Modest homes worth perhaps $120,000 were hit with $70,000 to $90,000 in assessments to upgrade 25th Street South, he said.

Fargo School Board President Jim Johnson said Davies wasn't built using the district's building authority. Instead, it is paid with the statutorily allowed building fund.

Johnson said the bill also seems to mirror a School Board resolution that says if the building authority is used for future construction, the project will go to a public vote.

Johnson wonders if the law could make it tough to refinance debt to save taxpayers money.

"I sure hope the legislation wouldn't restrict that ability," he said.

West Fargo School District has taken almost all of its major projects to votes, because they require bonding and must be approved by the public, Business Manager Mark Lemer said.

An exception was converting the former middle school into Lodoen Community Center. For that, a building authority was used to issue lease revenue bonds. Rents pay for the project and did not increase taxes, Lemer said.

The current bill could require a vote to do that, Lemer said,

"It would eliminate some flexibility that we currently have today," Lemer said.

Joining Kasper in sponsoring the bill are Donald Clark, R-Fargo, Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, Lisa Meier, R-Bismarck, and Dave Weiler, R-Bismarck.

Schmidt is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.