Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Counties to Receive an Additional $25 Million in CARES Funds

ND Lawmakers Approve A Total of $50 Million in CARES Funding to Counties
Funding assists counties in reducing property taxes

North Dakota’s legislative Budget Section today approved $25 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) funds to counties, which is in addition to the $25 million approved in August. These funds will provide a second round of funding to local government for a total of ten months of law enforcement payroll reimbursement. Public safety payroll is considered an allowable expense to distribute CARES fund dollars. The law enforcement payroll reimbursement is purely the mechanism to deliver funds to local government; counties can use the funds as needed.

The North Dakota Association of Counties (NDACo) recently collected 2021 budget information that reveals that CARES funds have assisted North Dakota counties in delivering tax reductions. This illustrates that counties have acted prudently with property taxes in their use of the CARES funds received.

County commissions were struggling with how to budget for CY21 due to declining revenues and increasing responsibilities, both driven largely by the pandemic fight. The State Emergency Commission and Budget Section stepped in and allocated federal Coronavirus Relief Funds, and the results were noticed.

The initial allocation in August of $25 million for counties came at a perfect time to be incorporated into the process of revising preliminary budgets before final budget approval. At a time when many counties anticipated raising property taxes, and some raising them significantly, we have seen the opposite. Twenty-four counties lowered their property tax (mill) rate, and seven of those were more than double-digit percentage reductions. Even more surprisingly, fourteen counties were able to lower their total dollars of taxes collected. In addition, eleven counties were able to lower BOTH their mill rate and tax dollars collected.

NDACo Executive Director Terry Traynor said “The state/county partnership was evident in the understanding the Governor’s Office and the Legislature have for the interconnection of state aid and property taxes. This funding has been significant for counties, and more importantly, property taxpayers. Although some counties were unable to lower taxes due to local staffing and operational responsibilities, across the state taxpayers avoided significant increases to their county taxes during this time of economic challenge.” 

“We are incredibly grateful for the allocation of CARES Funds to Morton County. We recently approved our 2021 budget and were able to reduce our mill levy by 8.1% and the dollars we collect in property tax by 3.4%,” commented Morton County Chair Cody Schulz. “We were only able to do this because of conservative, needs-based funding and the peace of mind that the CARES funding would leave us with a reasonable cash reserve to deal with future emergencies.”

Ward County acted similarly, citing the use of CARES funds to lower mills for the 2021 budget and placing funds in reserve to manage budget shortfalls going forward. “With CARES funds we were able to lower our mills an additional 4.19 from what was approved in our preliminary budget, bringing our overall levy back to the same as what it was for 2020’s budget,” said Ward County Auditor Marisa Haman.

As counties are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic response, counties are experiencing unanticipated financial burdens. Public health employees have been directly involved in COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Counties have seen dramatic COVID-19 impacts affecting elections. Jails and law enforcement, along with counties, have made investments in their facilities to provide safer environments to work and do business.

As all governments across North Dakota, Cass County has been impacted by the COVID emergency in various ways. Cass County Finance Director Mike Montplaisir highlights some of the impacts and costs associated. As with any workplace, cleaning efforts were enhanced, and workspaces were created to provide distance between employees and customers. In some of their newly remodeled offices that included adding glass to the counter area to create barriers and glass on the top of workstations to create barriers between employees. In other departments it meant moving employees to working from home. The remote work situations also come with associated IT costs. “Our big challenge this year was elections, first an all-mail primary election and then right now an election run partly by mail and partly by vote centers. In Cass County we opened six vote centers. Just the plexiglass to protect the workers was $9,000—not to mention the additional poll-worker time to staff the vote centers. The other big cost for Cass County was $70,000 for mailing ballots in the general election. Altogether, Cass County’s out-of-pocket, COVID-related costs have totaled over $350,000 of additional, unbudgeted expenditures.”

The Cass County Jail has been forced to house some prisoners in other counties to provide more segregation between prisoners. Cass County is making investments to provide for better handling of infectious diseases in the future. Critical are larger booking areas so that people from different law enforcement agencies and their prisoners are property separated as prisoners are brought in; more isolation cells that have negative air flows to prevent disease spread; and simply more capacity to handle more prisoners with diseases, so both prisoners and staff are kept safe.

“While addressing all these COVID impacts, Cass County was not only able to hold the line in taxes, we were able to reduce our mill levy by 2.23 mills or a little over $2 million dollars,” said Montplaisir. “We are very committed to reduce taxes where we can, while still providing necessary services to the public. The CARES Act funding has been a welcome relief as we struggle with some increased costs as we deal with COVID and try to reinvent how we can provide services in a changing world”.

Thanks to the Budget Section’s approval, counties will receive a total of $50 million in CARES funds and cities will receive a total of $70 million for law enforcement payroll reimbursement. Providing these funds to local governments will benefit property taxpayers across the state. North Dakota received $1.25 billion from the CARES Act.

Follow this link to see a county breakdown of the estimated $50 million for law enforcement payroll reimbursement: http://bit.ly/CARESestimate

Friday, October 2, 2020

Governor Holds Call with Commissioners & Mayors to Discuss COVID-19

Local public health officials, county commissioners and city mayors met with Governor Burgum and Lt. Governor Sanford to discuss what work is currently being done to address COVID-19. Represented areas were those with the highest number of current, active COVID cases. The local leaders have been working together within their communities since March and relayed strategies which have been implemented and modified as situations evolve.

Throughout the discussion it was clear that local collaboration has been instrumental during the pandemic response. The ND National Guard was praised for their valuable assistance in testing events. In addition to increased access both in times and locations, most localities are ramping up media campaigns in conjunction with the State’s #maskupND push. It was noted that tribal communities have a mask mandate in place which is well observed. Wearing face coverings in addition to physical distancing while in public are two of the easiest preventive measures to slow the spread.

Recurring challenges across the state continue to be consistent messaging, public compliance, and staffing. Locals reiterated previous requests for consistent messaging at all levels not only to contribute to mitigation strategies but also to alleviate public confusion of expectations. Health officials noted that people are much less cooperative with contact tracers and following quarantine and isolation guidelines. Staffing and onboarding temporary hires to handle the extra work created by the pandemic such as contact tracing and testing continues to be a huge concern.

Community protocols vary across the state depending on the case situations. Spikes or clusters in positive cases are seen in congregate settings and large gatherings. Some mayors and commissioners have taken bold leadership steps by placing a moratorium on large events and asking businesses to limit capacity. These short-term decisive actions are expected to help keep businesses open for the long haul.

Local leader asks:
· Governor explain risk-level restriction guidelines when referring to “colors”
· Discourage mass gatherings – biggest push back yet seems to spread most quickly at mass events
· Personal responsibility – be part of the solution, not the problem
· Quarantine and isolation orders need to come from state and message support local communities
· Hospital data needed
· Counties already established in-person voting location/protocols, would like to keep those open

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Interim Taxation Committee Discusses Need for Fuel Tax Increase

The Interim Taxation Committee spent the bulk of their discussion on transportation funding and how an increase in the state’s fuel tax would support necessary investments to improve roads and bridges long-term.

North Dakota’s motor fuel tax is .23 cents/gallon. It’s been at that level since 2005. Vehicle Registration fees have not increased since 2005 as well. In fact, North Dakota’s fuel tax is one of the lowest in the nation. Fuel taxes are distributed into the Highway Distribution fund, which is distributed to the state, counties, cities, townships for road construction. Director of North Dakota Department of Transportation, Bill Panos, indicated that the traditional funding sources simply do not meet the transportation needs in the state. Panos identified that $2.18 billion should be invested in the next ten years in order to maintain the current road and bridge system.
A 1 cent increase would equal $7.4 million in additional Highway Distribution Fund dollars, of which 22% goes to county roads. Committee Chairman, Representative Jason Dockter, expressed support in the development of a bill to increase the fuel tax for the next Legislative Session. However, no motion was made for an interim committee bill to be drafted.
$3.5 billion in one-time transportation legislative funding has been provided since 2007. Representative Vicki Steiner questioned how North Dakota is not further ahead when the state has appropriated billions of dollars in one-time funds in recent years. Director Panos recognized the legislature’s substantial support for North Dakota’s road system, with much of the funding dedicated to investments in western North Dakota. Panos indicated that those roads were at the same time incurring excessive damage from heavy trucks and high traffic volumes. He told lawmakers North Dakota roads will rapidly deteriorate if additional investments are not made. He highlighted how bridges are even a greater issue; indicating how North Dakota is #47 in the United States for bridge quality.

Check out the links to presentations provided to the interim committee:

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Legislative Committees Working Wrap Up Interim Studies

The North Dakota Interim Legislative Committees have a busy schedule in September. These committees are looking to wrap up the studies they have been assigned. Follow up from the studies typically includes drafting of bills and approval of bills to submit for the 2021 Legislature's consideration. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the interim process by delaying meetings. The biggest change for the interim has been the addition of video streaming. This allows lawmakers to attend online as well as the public to also view the meeting remotely.  

You can view the calendar of scheduled meetings for the month of September below. Visit https://www.legis.nd.gov/events to see each meeting, agenda along with information to allow you to view the live stream of the meeting. 



Thursday, August 13, 2020

Counties to Receive $25 million in CARES Funding for COVID-19 Costs and Impacts

North Dakota lawmakers approved sending $25.4 million in COVID-19 relief funds to North Dakota counties. The North Dakota Legislative Budget Section made the final approval August 13th as part of a package that is the third tranche of federal funding to support the state’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. Cities and counties will receive $59 million, on top of the $20 million for public health units.

“This is very important for county government which has experienced the double impact of increased costs related to coronavirus response and decreasing revenues caused by the related economic downturn,” said North Dakota Association of Counties Executive Director Terry Traynor. 

Counties are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic response. During this unprecedented public health emergency, counties are committed to mitigate COVID-19 and its impacts on citizens. Public health employees have been directly involved in COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, but counties have also seen dramatic COVID-19 impacts affecting elections, jails and law enforcement along with the investments in making county facilities safe environments to work and do business. 


“As local governments experience declining revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic, this substantial support will help cities and counties limit property tax increases by delivering the relief to them before their 2021 budgets are finalized,” said Governor Doug Burgum. “We’re grateful for the partnership of our legislative leaders and local political subdivisions in developing this consistent approach.”

The $59 million will be paid out as a reimbursement for law enforcement payroll based on each jurisdiction’s number of law enforcement officers and actual payroll costs from March through September. Public safety payroll is considered an allowable expense to distribution of Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars.

NDACo, working with the ND League of Cities (NDLC) and state leaders, reached this agreement as the mechanism to get much-needed funds to local governments for COVID-19 impacts. These funds will be immediately available to the city and county general funds for calendar year 2020 costs, or to address calendar year 2021 budget issues.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Joe Morrissette explained to lawmakers how these funds will be a welcome form of tax relief to jurisdictions struggling with the loss of revenue.

“These funds will provide meaningful support for local government at a time when they are building their budgets around a declining revenue from the state through the state aid allocations and highway tax distribution fund allocations, as well as significant reductions in their local revenues in sales tax and hotel and lodging taxes,” explained Morrissette.

Traynor says it is clear there is an expectation these funds will be used in a way that will benefit property taxpayers and keep property tax mill rates as low as possible.

NDACo and NDLC have been working with OMB on the documentation needed from cities and counties to certify the expenditures to each city and county. Morrissette expects that the payments to cities and counties should be made in a matter of weeks.

“The simple, straightforward mechanism to deliver this fiscal relief to local taxpayers is the result of North Dakota’s exceptional state and local partnership. County officials thank Governor Burgum, his staff and our legislative leadership for making this possible,” said Traynor.

North Dakota received $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The $319.7 million approved in August is what remained of the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Governor Proposes Release of CARES Funds to Counties & Cities


Consistent with U.S. Treasury CARES Act guidance, the Governor is taking a proposal to the Emergency Commission this coming Monday to reimburse counties and cities for “law enforcement first responder payroll costs” for the first 7 months of the pandemic (March - Sept.).  If approved by the EC and the Budget Section, counties will simply submit their total payroll costs for sworn officers for March through July – for immediate reimbursement.  August and September payroll amounts will be submitted and reimbursed later, once they are incurred.

This concept will get much needed revenue (~$59 million) to counties and cities quickly and efficiently.  This will constitute the jurisdiction’s entire allocation, and any previously reimbursed amounts will be deducted from the total payroll costs.  County estimates based on averages are included in the attached presentation, however reimbursements will be based on actual payroll costs (salary and benefits) paid.   The proposal was announced today at the Auditor’s Conference. Your county auditor will be bringing more specific information back from that presentation.  We will also follow up with OMB instructions once formal approval is achieved. You can view the presentation with the proposal here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AdwaiyjeaQ5azJsI2ONgNVQlf7Z4-nw9/view?usp=sharing

"This is the result of a concerted effort by NDACo and the ND League of Cities, and tremendous support from OMB, the Governor’s Office and Legislative Leadership. We are extremely grateful to them for their understanding and dedicated effort on behalf of local government," said NDACo Executive Director Terry Traynor. "I personally would also like to thank all of our county auditors, their payroll and HR staff, and those law enforcement leaders that have helped provide the data necessary to make this case."


Monday, June 1, 2020

Counties Provide Frontline Services During Pandemic

Federal funding critical to assist counties in providing public health and emergency response during COVID-19 
North Dakota county employees are on the front lines of the response to the coronavirus pandemic. The services of county public health, corrections, human services, law enforcement, elections and general government have all been impacted and most of those impacts have a significant fiscal component.

CARES Act Reimbursement to Counties County officials are pleased that the Governor’s Office, through OMB and DES, is providing an avenue for these costs to be addressed by the Emergency Commission and Budget Section. County emergency managers and county auditors are working feverishly to get all costs incurred from March 1st through May 31st submitted into the FEMA grants system as well as the newly created OMB-Cares Act portal, in anticipation of the mid-June Emergency Commission meeting. County costs include staff overtime, PPE, sanitization of jails and other facilities, telework facilitation, secure ballot boxes and so much more.

Some costs associated with specific state agencies are being handled through state requests – notably public health support by Department of Health, human service overtime by Department of Human Services, and the holding of state prisoners in county jails by Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Reimbursing these unforeseen costs is so critical at a time when each county, like the state, is already experiencing revenue reductions due to the pandemic. Long-term, the reductions in State Aid Distribution, Highway Distribution, and Gross Production Tax (GPT) revenues will be devastating to the county services on which our citizens rely.

Below is an overview of some of the pressing county issues and activities related to COVID-19.
Local Public Health Staff Play Key Role in Community Testing and Contact Tracing During this unprecedented public health emergency, our local public health units have been working in cooperation with the state to mitigate COVID-19. Local public health staff play a vital role in contact tracing in the state as well as coordinate and assist with mass COVID-19 testing events. They are working with local leaders and businesses to meet the Governor’s Smart Restart guidelines by providing recommended guidance to those in their communities. Like many others, local health units have had to purchase additional equipment. Due to the concentration on conducting testing events and contact tracing, local public health is seeing additional costs for overtime, while foregoing much of their usual fee revenue from services they have been forced to suspend.

State Inmates Overcrowding County Jails
The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suspended admissions of inmates on March 13th, which led to local facilities holding state-sentenced inmates who would normally be transferred to DOCR. Since this closure, local jail facilities have housed 134 state-sentenced inmates. The state has approved CARES funding for DOCR to reimburse counties for their cost to hold these inmates, which totals approximately $590,000. But the real issue is how the DOCR closure of admissions has put a strain on the operations of our local facilities and made it difficult for them to have the space necessary to segregate inmates. The COVID-19 threat is even greater for our jails as they continue to have new arrests brought into the facility. Counties have taken actions to reduce population to allow for isolation of new inmates and have changed their policies and procedures to ensure the safety of officers and inmates. NDACo has worked with jail administrators in holding meetings with DOCR on this issue to urge the reopening of admissions. DOCR has scheduled to transfer some of the inmates starting the first week in June. NDACo is currently working with jail administrators, local public health administrators and state partners in scheduling COVID testing at all local jail facilities.

Vote by Mail Only for June Election
To best protect voters and election workers, the June election will be Vote by Mail only. At the request of the North Dakota County Auditors Association, Governor Doug Burgum issued Executive Order 2020-13 on March 26th, which allows counties to authorize Vote by Mail only. This order suspended the requirement for counties to have at least one physical polling location. Counties in all 53 counties adopted Vote by Mail as the only method to conduct the June election. NDACo has worked closely with auditors on an outreach plan. We encourage you to check out NDACo’s Facebook page and share the election materials. The key message is to get voters to return their ballots. As of May 29th, only 40% of the 178,000 ballots sent to voters have been returned.

Courthouse Access The important work of our counties continued during the pandemic. However, every county restricted public access to the courthouse. Many implemented by-appointment-only entry, with individuals entering being screened. In response to CDC recommendations, counties also used alternative methods for their commission meetings, such as conference calls and/or web-based applications. Several counties have decided to continue with restricting access through the June 9th election to best protect county employees focused on the election work. We expect our counties to be reevaluating their access during their June meetings.