After a state audit uncovered a $23 million excess in Stark County’s cash reserve balance, commissioners met for the first time on Tuesday, Oct. 6. Citizens present witnessed a contentious public meeting replete with vague explanations, blame shifting and personal attacks. A viral Facebook livestream garnering thousands of views and featuring hundreds of comments had many calling the meeting an embarrassment to Stark County.
Contentions began almost immediately when Stark County Assistant State's Attorney Jim Hope was asked by those in the back of the room to speak up or to use the microphone. He ignored the first request until Leslie Ross, a hearing-impaired disabled veteran and candidate for County Commission, again asked Hope if he could speak up so that all could hear. Hope responded with, "Too bad."
Following some preliminary agenda items, Jay Elkin, Stark County commissioner and District 36 state senator, addressed the budget concerns. Elkin said that many of the commissioners and county department leaders were aware of the irregularities found by the North Dakota State’s Auditor’s Office, but said the state had never had an issue with the reserves in the past — despite his notifying them every year about the excess reserves.
"When you look at all of this and you look at the reserves, state distribution is a heavy, heavy part of why we have those reserves," Elkin said. "I started working on the budget in 2008. At that time it was Commissioner Duane "Bucky" Wolf and I, after that I selected the chair to always come in to every budget meeting I had. The rationale behind that was that I did not want to do this alone."
Elkin added, "I brought this very question almost five years ago, because our reserves were top heavy. Their answer was, 'we are not worried about it,' and even last year I brought it to their attention and every year I have. So it's not that the question hasn't been asked, it's just that there was no concern."
As Elkin continued with explanations on why the county held a general fund exceeding the state’s cap by 257%, citizens approached the lectern and addressed their concerns with what the state auditor called an "overtaxation of citizens." Tempers flared when Leslie Ross approached the lectern and addressed the commission.
"I'm here to ask some questions about the state audit for just a minute. Having been on the school board for 12 years and budgeting, I know how they are audited. They don't go through every single thing in your financial statement; they don't go through all of it. They pick and choose what to go out and get, and now you can say that they missed this and that's fine. ... But you have said that they have told you these things; I don't see that in anything they have written or stated," Ross said, directing her comment to Elkin. "You admitted that you have known for years that we've been over and Dean (Franchuk) mentioned that it wasn't a problem in the past, but it was a problem in the past. The auditor didn't audit that particular part."
Elkin responded, "They knew full well we had them. I believe Kay Haag was there when I asked, and they said, 'I know you are over, but we are not going to concern ourselves with that because you guys are starting to tap your reserves.'"
At this point, Elkin diverted from the issue of the excess reserves and took the opportunity to personally address Ross' integrity, calling her a liar for posts she made on social media surrounding the event.
"I'm going to tell you something, the lies on your social media posts that have been destructive. ... You bring all these people in," Elkin said before Ross interjected by asking the audience if anyone had come to the meeting because they were told by her to come — none responded in the affirmative.
"Your lies have spread like fire and people want to believe the worst in people, Leslie," Elkin said before those in attendance interrupted, calling the senator's personal attacks on Ross "ridiculous" and unbecoming.
"It's not ridiculous; you lie and lie and lie," Elkin said, addressing the heated crowd and Ross in particular.
Ross then asked Elkin to tell her what lie she has told in her posts. Elkin asked if she wanted him to read her post aloud, to which she replied for him to read them all.
"I mean, my God, Leslie — the lies where you blame Kay Haag, you blame myself," Elkin said.
"She is the auditor!" Ross responded.
"It's easier to go on social media and discredit and insult people," Elkin said. "You could have asked to see the reserves."
"You can sit there in your hot seat and say that, because that just deflects from the reality of where we are," Ross said.
Ross then raised concerns with the handling of the budget with other commissioners before returning to her seat. Commissioner Carla Arthaud then took the opportunity to address Elkin's comments about Ross.
"Mr. Elkin, the way you brought her personal social media account up during a budget hearing was so unprofessional and rude. Everybody has freedom of speech," Arthaud said before Elkin began to interject. "I'm not done!" she said.
The chairman, Commissioner Pete Kuntz, sounded the gavel and brought tensions down.
The commission then returned to the topic of the budget and discussed the auditor’s office recommendations that Stark County review its cash reserve balance and special revenue fund before finalizing any budget.
Elkin contended that moving forward the county will face some difficult decisions as they determine the best approach for reducing the reserves, maintaining a productive budget and keeping employees and taxpayers appeased.