Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Interim Committee Studies Publication Costs



This Interim, the Judiciary Committee is taking a look at the various legal notice and publishing requirements of state agencies and political subdivisions. They are asking for the costs associated with meeting these requirements and are looking to identify potential notification alternatives.
This study came as a result of state leaders encouraging state agencies to look for budget savings. It has been identified that state agencies alone spend an estimated $3.7 million each biennium on publishing legal notices. In a climate where every agency is asked to be more fiscally responsible, these costs can’t be reduced because they are legally required. 
Counties are impacted by these costs as well. The North Dakota Association of Counties surveyed counties on their 2018 budget for publications. We can estimate $450,000 will be spent by counties in 2018 on meeting publication requirements. Our review of the publication requirements identified 142 various notices, documents and listings which counties are required to publish (generally in their official county newspaper) as mandated by state law.  You can find a list of those requirements by following this link: County Identified Required Publications.

Requirement to Publish Meeting Minutes and Expenditures
Many auditors singled out the requirement to have minutes of the commission meeting printed as the most costly. Take Towner County for example. Of their $10,000 budget for publications, publishing meeting minutes costs $6,000 a year, or $500 a month. For some, the biggest chunk of the cost to publish minutes is listing checks and expenditures, essentially “after the fact.” 

A number of North Dakota counties have made expenditure data available to citizens in an even easier to understand format through the use of a transparency portal. Five of our counties are using OpenGov or Socrata, which is essentially an open checkbook for citizens to view expenditures and budget information via the county’s website.  
NDACo urged the Judiciary Committee to review NDCC 11-11-35 and 11-11-37 and consider drafting legislation to remove the listing of expenditures as part of the minutes or to repeal the requirement to publish meeting minutes entirely.  

Requirement to Publish Notice of Meetings
This may also be an appropriate time to ponder the meeting notice requirement for local governments. We have witnessed how well the public meeting notice portal on the North Dakota Secretary of State website is working. This system is sufficient for state government and other governing bodies and may be adequate as well for local government. This would not bar county board meeting dates from being listed in the newspaper’s upcoming calendar of events.
It is important to note that advertising rates are negotiated and set every biennium by OMB. Although this mechanism is efficient, local governments have little direct control of this cost.  

Notice of Election for Commodity Groups
Counties are also responsible for advertising the notices of elections for commodity groups that are paid for by the County Extension fund. We would argue that it would be more fitting to have the commodity groups pay for these ads rather than an expense to our county taxpayers -- especially at a time when counties will be asked to pick up a greater share in the cost of Extension.   

NDACo Requests Date Change for Financial Statement
As NDACo looked at these requirements we were made aware of a minor tweak that will be necessary to NDCC 11-11-11 subsection 4 under the general duties of the board of county commissioners. Auditors say the date of March 15th for publishing financial statements should be changed to a later date such as November 15th.  This is necessary as the State and private auditors do not complete their fiscal audits until the end of summer, and those are essential to providing accurate statements.  

Many of these requirements are more than a century old. There are inconsistencies in requirements and in the language. NDACo has worked over the years to address some of these as we are made aware of issues on case-by-case basis. We have made recent progress in addressing publications that we have identified as being unnecessary. The 2017 Legislative Assembly passed two bills that have reduced county publication costs slightly.

  • HB 1231: Repealed the quarterly NDSU Extension advertisement requirement in county newspapers.

  • SB 2171: Reduced the number of weeks from three to two that counties had to publish advertisements for the sale of county equipment.

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Many of our counties are not only meeting the state-mandated publishing requirements; but in addition, they are posting this information on their websites and Facebook pages – in addition to what those counties with “transparency portals” are doing.

Of the 53 counties, only six do not have websites.  A number of counties also have their meetings televised, live streamed or recorded and available online.
Counties most certainly understand the necessity of informing the public and firmly believe in being transparent. There are many examples of how counties are going above what is mandated by using other tools and technology to reach their citizens. 


Friday, December 8, 2017

Interim Committee Studies Future of Transportation Funding


This interim, North Dakota lawmakers serving on the Government Finance Committee are discussing how to fund state and local roads in the future. Part of that discussion, includes exploring possible increases to the state’s gas tax and registration fees as well as alternative revenue ideas. The committee meet December 7th to discuss transportation funding and the future. 
 “The current funding formula is inadequate,” said NDACo Assistant Director Terry Traynor. “The federal funds have essentially been flat over that same time period, clearly, our foundational revenues have not been keeping up with the costs. It is time to explore other funding options to support our transportation system in the near future and long-term.”
County road funding has consisted of property tax, highway distribution funds, and federal highway formula funds and in the most recent years, a great deal of one-time state funding. That one-time funding has been the salvation for county roads with the injection of close to $1 Billion in both oil producing and non-oil producing counties. For about four years, counties have made great strides in addressing the backlog of road and bridge improvement projects.
Traynor highlighted how the one-time investments have made a profound difference across our state. 413 major projects in every county were completed with the one-time funding. The most recent Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute (UGPTI) study shows dramatic improvement in road conditions because of this. The miles of “poor” pavement have been cut in half and the miles of “good” have increased by at least a third.
“But more than the chart, you can see it in the results, and hear it from our local officials,” said Traynor.
Traynor showed committee members examples of what the funding as done from a $1.32 million bridge in Barnes County to a $2.2 million gravel truck route in Ramsey County to a $3.7 million bridge replacement in Stark County.
“The UGPTI study says we should be spending $450-$500 million a biennium on local roads if we want to maintain the improvements made and provide the transportation system necessary for our ag, energy and other industries,” said Traynor. “We are actually spending about 60% of that need, and much of that is on things like snow and ice removal that contribute little to the long-term maintenance of roadways. So obviously we have a challenge.”
North Dakota Department of Transportation officials pointed out that because there was no appropriation for a state funded construction program during the 2017 Legislative Session; North Dakota is solely dependent on federal funds (and the minimal state match) for any road improvements this biennium. Federal funds can only be used on federal roads; which make up 17.65% of all the roads in the state. This makes the state very reliant on federal funds for any construction work.
Traynor pointed out that the Highway Distribution Fund is supplied by motor vehicle taxes and fees. Two-thirds of the revenue is fuel taxes, and one-third vehicle registrations. And unlike in some states, the motor vehicle excise tax does not go into funding roads but into the State’s General Fund.
It has been a number of years since any increases have been made. In 2005, lawmakers approved a 2-cent fuel tax and an across-the-board registration fee increase of $10. In 2009, a $3 registration increase was approved. A 1-cent increase in the gas tax would generate $7.4 million for state, county, city and township roads.
Comparing registration fees with other states in our region, North Dakota is significantly less. Wyoming for example is three times higher, Montana twice as much and South Dakota is similar but has a local option as well, which makes their fees higher than North Dakota.  North Dakota is surrounded by states with higher fuel taxes with the exception of Montana which is similar.
Transportation officials at all levels across the country are exploring additional ways beyond the traditional methods to provide funding for transportation programs as revenue generated by fuel taxes have dropped due to greater vehicle fuel efficiency.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Survey Shows Counties Progress with Zoning for Medical Marijuana

In preparation for Thursday's webinar on medical marijuana
NDACo asked counties: "Where is your county at with respect to zoning for medical marijuana facilities."
46 out of 53 counties responded. As you can see, the progress counties have made in preparing for the implementation of medical marijuana is very split. Many counties indicated they will be tuning into Thursday's webinar to learn more about the best zoning practices for regulating medical marijuana facilities.
We are encouraged to see the volume of county members who have signed up for NDACo's webinar on "Medical Marijuana: Proposed Administrative Rules & Zoning Changes". We hope you consider it as well if you have not already registered for this free educational session.
Register by clicking here:
https://www.ndaco.org/programs_and_services/institute-of-local-government-ilg/ilg-courses/medical-marijuana-propos

ed-administrative-rules-and-zoning-changes/