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Funding, roads top forum topics

Posted 4/03/13 (Wed)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Taking care of the immediate needs of the state, as well as providing additional state funding for oil-impacted counties in northwestern North Dakota are the two main issues facing the North Dakota Legislature this session. That was the message that area residents heard from District 39 legislators during a legislative forum that was held in Watford City on March 30.
“There is no conscience when it comes to the funding requests that we have seen so far this session,” stated Senator Bill Bowman. “So far the state is $837 million over budget and we’re going to have to find a balance between what is wanted and what the state has money to fund.”
Specifically, according to Bowman, the Legislature is trying again this session to address property tax relief but at the same time working to meet the infrastructure needs in the communities and counties that are being impacted by oil development.
And meeting the needs of western North Dakota when it comes to improving state highways and helping to bring affordable housing to the oil-impacted communities is going to cost the state millions of dollars.
“It’s all about money this session,” stated David Drovdal, District 39 Representative. “But we are going to be able to bring significant money to help western North Dakota that is being impacted by the oil boom.”
According to Drovdal, there is new legislation that is making its way through the session that could bring $58 million in impact aid to oil-impacted areas.
“As a result of this new funding, counties are going to see three times the money that was available to them before and cities will see twice as much assistance,” stated Drovdal. “But it’s still not enough money.”
The new state funding, according to Drovdal, would provide money to help schools, fire and ambulance departments, as well as law enforcement meet the demands being placed upon them by increased oil activity.
“We are trying to attack the funding issues at different angles to meet the needs out here,” stated Drovdal.
But according to Drovdal, there is a fear in the Legislature that as the Bakken wells age, their production will drop and the state’s revenues will decrease.
“We’re trying to deal with the issues at hand,” stated State Representative Keith Kempenich. “But we also have to take care of the next generation.”
For Kempenich, addressing the road construction needs and assisting in building affordable housing in western North Dakota are two of the biggest issues.
“We’ve got to get U.S. Highway 85 four-laned from Watford City to Williston,” stated Kempenich. “We need to improve that highway to handle the increasing traffic and to keep people who are traveling on the highway safe.”
As for state assistance in providing affordable housing in the state’s oil patch, Kempenich noted that the legislature tax driving force is considering two bills that provide between $20 and $30 million to address the problem.
“The big question is how to build affordable housing in the communities out here,” stated Kempenich. “There is no question that there needs to be affordable housing for the people coming here to work and live. We just need to look at a variety of permanent housing options that will include stick built homes, modular homes and mobile homes.”
While Kempenich believes that the state Legislature is well aware of the problems facing western North Dakota counties and communities that are struggling to keep up with the growth in population, he doesn’t see a quick fix.
“We have to prioritize,” stated Kempenich. “We have to take care of the problem areas first and then address the rest of the state’s issues.’
And taking care of all of the state’s needs, according to Kempenich, could take 10 years.
“The issues and the needs aren’t going away soon,” said Kempenich. “We’ve got enough money to get things done. We just want to do it right. And that could take multiple biennium budgets to accomplish.”
During a question and answer session, the legislators were asked if there was anything being done to help increase surface owner protection.
“We started out the session with half a dozen land owner bills,” stated Kempenich. “But we got a lot of push back from the oil companies. We’ve been working on surface owner issues for the last 12 years.”
But according to Steve Stenehjem and Jody Renbarger, the oil companies are continuing to disregard surface owner concerns.
“The legislature hasn’t provided protection for the citizens,” stated Renbarger. “The state likes the money but there is no protection.”
Part of the problem that surface owners face, according to Renbarger, is that terms such as grading or drilling are not defined by the state. As a result, oil companies can use that lack of definitions to their benefit.
“We’re floundering in the courts,” stated Renbarger. “Cases are being drug out three to four years. The oil companies aren’t following contract law. We need your help.”
“Two years ago, we thought we had a definition for drilling,” stated Drovdal, who was in total agreement for the need for definitions. “It was when the bit hit the ground. But that law was overturned.”
Part of the state’s problem in dealing with this issue, according to Kempenich is how fast the oil development is occuring.
“We gain a little bit every session on these issues,” stated Kempenich. “But it is growing faster than we can react. And it’s unfortunate that the surface owner is just along for the ride.”
The need for more improvements to U.S. Highway 85, especially between Watford City and I-94  was also a big concern for area residents.
“We have a bottleneck on 85 south at the Long X Bridge,” stated Gene Veeder, McKenzie County Job Development director. “How do we get that bridge replaced?”
While Drovdal is in total support of the four-laning of 85 from Watford City to I-94, he noted that the North Dakota Dept. of Transportation (NDDOT) has indicated that the environmental issues around the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park are going to be immense.
“The NDDOT wants to do the project in segments,” stated Drovdal. “The want to get the four-laning from Watford City to Williston done first.”
But according to Roger Chinn, McKenzie County commissioner, that stretch of highway is in need of work right now.
“The base of Highway 85 is inadequate,” stated Chinn. “They keep overlaying it and it doesn’t last. We’re going to have 60 rigs working in the county until 2025. We’ve got to have the road fixed.”
For Bowman, who has been pushing for the four-laning of U.S. Highway 85 south, he believes that lack of vision on the part of the NDDOT is to blame.
“They don’t have the vision,” stated Bowman. “We know how many people have died on these roads. We need to have safe roads.”
But for Veeder, the problem with the NDDOT is that the department isn’t taking the issue seriously.
“NDDOT is not taking this situation seriously,” stated Veeder. “They keep telling us out here to stand down on the Highway 85 improvements. The Governor supports the improvements and the people in the eastern part of the state support the improvements. The problem seems to be solely in the NDDOT.”