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Zap fixes up roads in hopes of cashing in on Bakken growth

ZAP, N.D. -- In a time when infrastructure needs are widespread in North Dakota and funding is limited, some small towns are making tough decisions to invest in their future.

ZAP, N.D. -- In a time when infrastructure needs are widespread in North Dakota and funding is limited, some small towns are making tough decisions to invest in their future.

The town of Zap has about 250 residents, and, when it came time to repave the roads or risk disappearing into a pothole, the mayor and auditor said most everyone was supportive and willing to foot the $2.2 million needed to build.

Now that the cost has hit the tax rolls to the tune of about $400 per unit this year, some residents are upset about the cost, but, with the project mostly complete, the majority of residents are "happier than heck" with their investment, according to Mayor Terry Barden. That amount will go up to almost $750 per unit next year to pay off interest. Over the 20 year course of the district, the cost per unit, including interest, would come to about $6,700.

Comparatively, in Bismarck a mill, overlay and chip seal road project led to an average special assessment of almost $2,840 per lot or unit. The average lot had 70 feet of street frontage, said Assistant City Administrator Keith Hunke.

Hunke said Bismarck also has the benefit of a sales tax buy down. Without sales taxes the assessment would have been $3,782 per unit.

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"I like the roads but I'm not going to like the bill," said Lucretia Dirk, who has lived in Zap for 23 years. She said the roads were getting really bad, but since her husband died recently, she's not sure she is going to stay in town and could be faced with a big bill before she can sell her home.

Auditor Cynthia Zahn said, as a small community on the fringe of the Bakken, it sometimes feels like it is being left in the dust by the needs of larger towns and obtaining funding is "like trying to find a needle in a haystack."

All other funding options, including applying for state grants, were exhausted before turning to a special assessment, Zahn said. Oil impact funding distributed to the town was minimal, but the town will continue to apply for funding again next year to help cover the cost, according to Barden.

"We're going to keep trying," Zahn said.

When a road project was considered 10 years ago, it was voted down after 52 percent of residents had indicated support for it, according to Barden.

This time, the city, in addition to multiple public hearings,  published two newspaper notices soliciting letters of disapproval. Based on letters received, 78 percent of residents were considered in favor of the project.

"It wasn't even close," Barden said.

Dirk said she missed the deadline for sending in a letter, but resident Adrian Bauer was one of those that sent in a letter dissenting the project.

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"I think it was a waste of money," he said. "We have no businesses, and it jacked up our special assessment."

Bauer said a lot of people in town live on a fixed income and he's not sure how they're going to pay the extra taxes.

Jerry Hjelmstad, deputy director for the North Dakota League of Cities, said road projects are difficult in small towns. State gas tax revenue isn't enough to cover major projects and they have to rely on city-wide assessments.

"That's what makes it hard," he said.

In the past decade, the town had been bleeding its general fund to pay for patching and sealing to keep the roads usable.

"We were spending a lot of money," said Barden, explaining it came to the point that any repairs were destroyed from one year to the next.

The town was left with the decision to rebuild or go back to gravel, a move that would have likely cost more than repaving. The town's water tank was also coated and painted as part of the larger project.

Resident Marvin Erickson said he thinks the city probably should have just kept patching. He attended one of the informational meetings and said many people there were also in favor of patching.

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Barden said he doesn't blame anyone being upset over the cost of the road project, especially those on fixed incomes.

"But what do you do?" he asked.

Now that the roads are better, the town has positioned itself to grow, according to Barden, indicating that a couple of new houses are being built and a developer has expressed interest in opening a trailer park.

"Maybe we'll get some more businesses," Barden said "You've got to look forward instead of back."

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