Some Ward County officials and residents would like to raise nearly $40 million for building projects. Dan Deaver, Citizen's Committee spokesman, pushed the issue during a press conference at the Ward County Courthouse Thursday morning.
County commissioners had earlier approved a ballot measure request for a half-cent sales tax throughout the county. The measure will go before Ward County voters during the November election.
"We feel that asking voters to support a sales tax is a more equitable way to spread the payment of this across all residents and not just those who own property," said Deaver. "What we are here for today is to ask for a half-cent sales tax to support this project, to pay for it."
Kim Fundingsland/MDN • Dan Deaver, Citizen’s Committee spokesman, addresses a press conference in the Ward County Courthouse Thursday morning to detail a ballot measure calling for a half-cent sales tax in Ward County. The money raised by the proposed tax would be used for county building projects.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN • This is an architect’s concept of the proposed Ward County Office Building which would be situated on Third Street Southeast, adjacent to the Third Street Fire Station. At the far right is the Ward County Courthouse. A walkway would attach the two buildings.
The project is actually the sum of three requests, described in a news release as "roughly" or estimated dollars - $18.8 million for a new office building and courthouse renovations, $10.5 million for expansion of the Ward County Jail and $10 million for bridge and road repairs.
Commissioners have long been tusseling with how to acquire more space for courthouse staff. Constructed in 1929, the courthouse has become crowded despite several efforts to utilize all available space in the nearly 44,000-square-foot building. The proposed Ward County Office Building would be a three-story structure containing approximately 65,000 square feet of useable space.
Much of the space in the proposed new building would be used by Ward County Social Services. The county currently pays an annual rent of $332,000 to house Social Services in a building on the north side of Minot.
"Social Services would take the whole third floor and some of the bottom floor," said Deaver. "The Extension Service and the Veteran's would also be on the first floor."
A similar building request was brought before the voters six years ago and failed to pass. Deaver said he was one of those who voted against the measure then, citing a dislike for additional property tax and that voters wanted a "less extravagant" building. According to a news release, the Citizen's Committee says the most recent request comes with "significant changes to the old proposal."
"We all understand the effect of property tax and the public's concern about having that burden get larger," said John Fjeldahl, a county commissioner. "I think that's the primary reason why funding it this way is the best way to do it. One thing to remember, this tax is very specific."
Fjeldahl said his greatest concern is the need for additional space in the Ward County Jail. That facility was built in 1984 with 58 cells. Today it often houses more than 100 prisoners per night with more than one inmate per cell. Expansion, if approved, would allow the county to house an additional 42 inmates.
A news release from the Citizen's Committee stated the proposed sales tax will sunset in 10 years, or earlier if the projects in the measure are paid for before that time.
"We will ask for funds through the Legislature," said Fjeldahl. "If, and when, we receive that funding it will help us sunset this tax quicker. In other words, we're not going to use other funds for other purposes. This will close this tax down quicker than we anticipated."
The office building plan previously rejected by Ward County voters included underground parking for 100 vehicles. The revised building plan has a proposed off-load facility under a portion of the building but will not include underground parking.
"The issue of parking? That I can't answer yet," said Deaver.
According to Fjeldahl, additional employees will be asked to use the parking lot immediately west of the courthouse. A limited number of parking spaces will also be available on Third Avenue Southeast, the road that passes by the north side of The Minot Daily News and the County Courthouse.
A portion of Third Avenue Southeast will be closed if the ballot measure is approved. An overhead walkway is proposed to connect the courthouse with the office building. If approved by voters in November, construction on both the jail and office building could begin as early as next spring or summer.
During Thursday's press conference it was announced that the public is invited to tour the Ward County Courthouse to help residents determine the need for additional space. Tours will be conducted each Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. until Election Day.