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Richardton mayor's longevity beneficial to city

Frank Kirschenheiter has served as the mayor of Richardton for 25 years. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press

Smaller towns in the Bakken have a different list of concerns from the hub cities in western North Dakota.

They worry about their children having room in the gymnasium for basketball practice. They stress that a broken tractor axel will put the city in the red. And some operate with a handful of staff members, most of which are part-time.

Frank Kirschenheiter has been the mayor of such a city for 25 years. He has worked with a "league of three," meaning the city auditor and roads supervisor as well as four city commissioners to govern the small town of Richardton — whose population he estimated to be between 700 and 800.

"We don't spend money," he said. "When I started there we had no money, I mean you finished the end of the year, and if you were in the black that was a miracle."

Their greatest challenge over the last two and a half decades has been to pay the bills, he said. The city does not have a police force of its own but instead pays Stark County for its law enforcement—something that used to take a toll on the city's finances.

Ambrose Hoff, a farmer, rancher and entrepreneur in Richardton, has been working with the mayor for about 25 years. The two worked together to get Red Trail Energy, an ethanol production facility near the town, up and running, Hoff said.

"There are a lot of resources outside your town that are valuable to new businesses," Hoff said. "He's always stepped up to the plate to help get through the politics of the projects, the different agencies that it basically takes to build a business. He and I spent a lot of time at the different governors' offices to help get these projects going. When you've got a big project like an ethanol plant, it takes a lot of connections to make it happen. ... He's a very knowledgeable man when it comes to helping the city of Richardton."

Over the years, Hoff said he has been able to turn to Kirschenheiter whenever he needed some direction before starting a new venture in town.

"Even today, if someone wanted to come to our town to start a business or make an impression with some kind of program or something, Frank would be right there helping them get it done, get it done right," he said.

The oil boom actually benefited Richardton, providing energy impact funds and grants for the city to improve its infrastructures and more money from the oil extraction tax that allowed it to purchase new equipment, Kirschenheiter said. But the smaller cities made sure to conserve these funds and prioritize their needs.

"I really believe we're much better today than we were in the past," he said. "We have some big issues that are going to remain. We're working on a street project right now which is a very, very large project for a small community."

The city had an engineer's estimate completed to see how much it would cost to repave the north and south sides of town. The city government will soon send out notices informing the public of the proposal and how much it would cost. Residents will also be given the opportunity to voice their opposition. Based on the percentage of approval, the commission will begin or halt the project.

"It's not a decision that the five of us as commissioners should make," he said. "It should be left up to the consensus of the populace and the residents. There's only so much you can endure as far as increased taxes."

Kirschenheiter also welcomes public opinion at the city commission meetings. He allows people to speak even if they are not on the agenda, despite some criticism for this practice. Doing so can make the meetings more cumbersome, he said, but ultimately Richardton is their city.

He said he has also enjoyed watching the city grow over the years. At one point he knew most everyone in town but now sees unfamiliar faces on the streets, which is a good thing, he said.

Other locales have noticed Richardton's growth in recent years, as well.

"The city of Richardton has done a really good job of trying to expand and trying to grow itself, and I attribute a lot of that to the mayor," said Stark County Commission Chairman Jay Elkin.

Kirschenheiter's long tenure is partially because he runs unopposed in some elections or he decides to run again in order to maintain some consistency while the city is going through a transitional time, he said. During that time he has worked with numerous commissioners, most of whom he was happy to have served with. Richardton has young people who are willing to step up and serve in the best interest of the community.

"He has been a great resource for the community, I think, with the number of years of experience that he has," said Commissioner Josh Reisenauer, who has been on the commission for about two and a half years. "He always has a lot of insight to offer in situations when we're looking at stuff and experience in the sense that some of the things that come up and thoughts and questions and ideas have maybe been tried before."

Overall, Reisenauer said he thinks the community is satisfied with the mayor's service or else they would have voted him out. But the commission does hear people's negative comments most frequently.

"Sometimes sitting on boards and commissions and different things of that nature is often a thankless job," Reisenauer said, "and it can be a real benefit to a community when you have people that are willing to put in the time, especially over a long tenure like that and try to do things that better the community."