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Dickinson leaders face shortfall

The Dickinson city commissioners had varying responses after hearing about the financial shortfall the city will face in the coming years. The commission was presented with growth projections made by AE2S Nexus, a financial and asset management c...

Dickinson is projected to face a $111 million money gap by 2023, something the city commission will keep in mind moving forward. (iStock image)
Dickinson is projected to face a $111 million money gap by 2023, something the city commission will keep in mind moving forward. (iStock image)

The Dickinson city commissioners had varying responses after hearing about the financial shortfall the city will face in the coming years.

The commission was presented with growth projections made by AE2S Nexus, a financial and asset management company, at their meeting on Tuesday. The company projected that Dickinson will face a population increase of 5,500 and an $111 million funding gap between the revenue generated and the revenue needed to support the growth over the next five years. The study also projects that Dickinson will have $213 million in infrastructure needs from 2017 to 2023.

"It's very eye-opening when you see presentations like that because without those it's hard to know what decisions are going to be coming down the road," said commissioner Jason Fridrich, who was elected to the position in November. "Those studies take some time, but, for commissioners, it's a lot of good information. In the next two years there's going to be a lot of stuff that we're going to have to decide on, and it's nice to have something to fall back on for information. We know where we need to go."

Commissioner Sarah Jennings, who joined the commission this past summer, agreed that the numbers were "cumbersome," and noted that one major point made in the presentation was the lack of staff in some of the city's departments. By 2023, Dickinson is projected to need 57 additional full-time employees including an additional 26 in the city's public works department and 10.5 in the police department, according to the study.

Jennings said this winter's snowstorms had already drawn the commission's attention to the leanness of some departments.

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"I think that the snowstorm was kind of an eye-opener for many of us," she said. "We've received many complaints and also many supportive comments on how the first and second storms were handled, but I think it really showcased our lack of staff in certain departments. We're lucky to have such a great group of men and women that work really hard every day for the city, but we need to make sure that we're not exhausting them and exhausting our resources."

Mayor Scott Decker said he already began working with city administrator Shawn Kessel to address such staff shortages. They will take an especially close look at departments relating to public safety including the police department, fire department and the street department.

"Those are the people that are essential to keeping the city running on a day-to-day basis because it's what the citizens of Dickinson expect," Decker said. "They expect to be in a safe community, and they expect to be able to be mobile and get around, so we have to address those issues first when it comes to staffing."

More senior members on the commission were not surprised by the large monetary figures the commission will face. Klayton Oltmanns, the commission's vice president, began serving on the board in 2010 and said the leadership had been planning for such growth for years.

"It was nice maybe to have it validated, so that we knew the measures that we are taking are founded in fact rather than fantasy," he said. "The biggest deal is that we have a multi-year budget and a multi-year capital improvement plan, so I think that, as a commission, we have been working through these issues. As projects come up, we just make a strong point of prioritizing, looking at our budget and what expenditures we can afford while, not only servicing our current debt, but retiring as much debt as we can before we move forward on new projects."

For example, he noted that the city had considered a $10 million upgrade on the lagoon wastewater treatment system - a system that would have catered to Dickinson's immediate needs, but only served as a temporary measure, Oltmanns said. Instead the city invested in building a mechanical wastewater treatment facility, which was constructed so that other modules could be added as the city's population increased. The city also chose to focus more on infill by building more heavily on existing city land rather than annexing more.

"There was no way we were going to get it exactly right," he said. "We were either going to under-build, over-build, and I think that we got closer to where we needed to be. We've got vacancies, but in my mind it means that apartments have really come down to probably the price they should be for people to be able to afford to work and live here and not have to have an oilfield job to live in Dickinson."

The city also refrained from "over-hiring," so it was not forced to lay off any city employees during the economic downturn, he said. Rather, the city has been relying on its department heads to assess their own needs and then the commission has worked to provide funds for those positions without straining the budget.

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Decker also noted that he thought the previous city leaders, "were very forward-thinking in building to accommodate growth." Jennings pointed out that the commission was conservative when creating 2017's budget, something it will need to continue doing, she said. The city's staff has worked to compile information so that the commission can continue to identify which projects warrant a higher priority.

In the meantime, the commission is awaiting the state Legislature's budget decisions regarding how much money Dickinson and other hub oil cities will receive to help lessen the debt burden this biennium. This session will be especially tough because of all the budget cuts, but Decker said he, the other commissioners and city representatives will continue explaining Dickinson's need to lawmakers. All five commissioners, in addition to Kessel and other city staff, attended Southwest Night in Bismarck on Monday for that reason.

Overall, Decker said he was "100 percent confident" in the area's state legislators, who are also working to secure those funds.

"We never know what the future brings, so we just have to be prepared to deal with it on a scale which is manageable for us," Decker said. "... It's great to look at seven years, but I think if we're one, two years out, and we're doing everything fiscally responsibly, we'll get through that seven years."

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