October 14, 2014

City approves record $104 million budget

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

The Watford City City Council gave its go-ahead to spending $77 million to construct a new wastewater treatment facility and a new community Events Center during its regular meeting on Monday, Oct. 6. Those two projects were part of a $104,410,690 city budget.
While the two projects consume the bulk of the city’s budget, Brent Sanford, Watford City mayor, says that both projects are absolutely essential for the future of this rapidly growing city in the heart of North Dakota’s Bakken oil development.
“Our current lagoons are designed for a community of 1,500 people,” states Sanford, on the need for a new $20 million wastewater treatment facility. “Current inflows are showing that 6,500 people are utilizing the lagoons.”
Work has already begun on the new wastewater treatment plant. But according to Sanford, the new treatment facility will be too small for the growing city by the time it is finished.
“By the time the new treatment plant is finished, Watford City’s population will be greater than its maximum capacity,” states Sanford. “As a result, the city will already be in the process of building the Phase II expansion even before Phase I is completed.”
Likewise, Sanford says it is the rapid growth of the city that makes the construction of a new $60 million community Events Center so critical.
“The community Events Center is the answer to the many needs that have been identified in community surveys over the years asking for indoor recreation and events space, as well as upgrading our community facilities to the size of the population currently residing here,” states Sanford. “In addition, the Events Center would supplement the new high school project with needed space for school events and athletics.”
Budgets constraints, according to Sanford, have basically limited the high school construction to classrooms only. The Events Center would provide the school with an indoor pool, basketball and volleyball courts, a gymnasium and athletic field. But it would also allow the city park district to hold indoor events year-round. Additionally, the Events Center would allow the community to recruit events to be held in the convention space, have a capacity to hold trade shows, and provide space for private recreation groups.
“We (the city council) feel that building this facility is of outmost importance in keeping this community family-friendly and keeping our growing community inviting to new residents,” states Sanford. “We feel the city voters felt the same when they voted 85 percent in favor of increasing the city sales tax. So we continue to plan the facility and move forward.”
The city’s new budget also includes $7 million for street improvements on 2nd Ave. Southeast, 3rd Ave. Southwest and 5th Street West, and another $40,000 to make renovations to the front entrance and bathroom area of the Veterans Memorial Building.
The new budget also provides for 13 new employees, which would increase the city’s staff from 42 to 55 employees. Of that number, seven new staff members would be added to the police department, including four patrol officers, a school resource officer, a narcotics investigator/detective, and a community service officer. The budget also provides for hiring a civil engineering technician, as well as adding one employee each to the water, sewer and garbage departments and two employees to the road department.
While the city is budgeting for  $104 million in expenditures, Sanford says that the city council’s goal was to keep property taxes as low as possible for existing city residents.
“We budgeted for a hold-even amount for existing city residents,” states Sanford. “Which means that the city used the new residences and businesses locating in the city as the means for property tax revenue growth. This is in the spirit of all recent legislation at the state level, holding property tax increases to a minimum.”
While city residents may think that their personal property taxes are paying for the bulk of the growth in city government expenses, Sanford says that is not true.
“The $500,000 that the city collects in property taxes pays but a small portion of the city’s $18 million general fund expenditure balance,” states Sanford. “The balance of that fund is made up from the state’s oil and gas production tax (GPT) distribution.”
Watford City officials, along with the McKenzie County Commissioners and others from western North Dakota, are asking the North Dakota Legislature for a change in the GPT funding formula that would provide a greater share of those funds to local government.
“We are asking for an increase in the GPT funding formula so we can keep pace with the law enforcement and public works growth, as well as providing the city the ability to pay for the debt we will be incurring to keep pace with the development,” states Sanford. “If people see the 60-40 discussions in the media, that is the adjustment to the formula we are proposing. We would like to increase the local distribution share from 25 percent of the GPT to 60 percent of the GPT collected from oil and gas production in our county. Success in that effort will be very important in allowing us to keep pace with the rapid growth.”