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Southwest Water to continue property tax for all counties

Some southwest North Dakotans pay a water company they don’t use — and will continue to do so.

The Southwest Water Authority will maintain a tax on all properties in 12 counties within its service area, its board of directors decided Monday morning.

The one-mill tax levy was authorized by the state Legislature to support Southwest Water’s operations when the company got started in 1991.

But, some board members questioned the tax’s purpose, particularly for rural residents who do not have access to Southwest Water.

"We’re getting mill levies from people with no water — who aren’t ever going to get water," said board member Ray Bieber, who represents Hettinger County.

For instance, many residents of Mandan are serviced by Missouri West Water, not Southwest Water, said City of Mandan board member Robert Leingang.

Southwest Water legal counsel Mike Dwyer said the same argument is occurring in many school districts nationwide. Residents may not want to pay into the district if they do not have children in school, he said.

Dwyer said that indirect benefits come to those around Southwest Water’s pipelines. The existence of water infrastructure in areas near Mandan will drive more consumers to the city, he said.

"The consensus has been that there is always indirect benefit: better quality of life, better economic growth, more tax revenues, more income," Dwyer said.

Board members unanimously agreed with Dwyer’s reasoning.

The mill has been approved through the Legislature through 2020. Southwest Water Authority CEO Mary Massad said the board may then choose to stop the tax, covering administrative expenses with higher water rates.

Tax dollars pay for Southwest Water’s administrative costs, which includes salaries, health care benefits and per diems.

One mill represents $1 per $1,000 in taxable value. For instance, on a property worth $500,000, the landowner would pay $500 in taxes to Southwest Water.

Counties taxed are: Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Golden Valley, Grant, Hettinger, Mercer, Morton, Oliver, Slope and Stark.

Board to look into

satellite-based meters

Board members would also like to see more accurate, satellite-based meters included in Southwest Water’s budget for 2015 for existing customers.

Satellite-read meters have only recently been required to be installed for all new Southwest Water customers. They send electronic updates to its headquarters in Dickinson daily and have battery lives of 10 years, Massad said.

Customers with older meters have to manually check them, sometimes leading to inaccurate billing, she said.

Massad said she did not plan on asking that the board require customers to install satellite meters before the 2015-17 biennium.

She is not yet sure of how much funding Southwest Water will receive from the Legislature, and thousands of new meters would need to be installed. Massad also did not know how much customers might be billed, as installation can cost about $800.

Board director James Odermann said if the new meters can quickly detect leaks and other problems, Southwest Water should commit to them now.

"I just urge us to say let’s have this done as soon as possible," Odermann said.

Massad pledged to have a plan for the meters to be put into the 2015 budget soon, if not by Southwest Water’s public meeting next month.

In other business, Gene Allen was sworn in as the new Southwest Water Authority board member for Golden Valley County. He replaced Darrel Oech, who retired from the position.