Thursday, September 21, 2017

Counties Anticipate Property Tax Challenges

The following is a Letter to the Editor - written by North Dakota Association of Counties Executive Director, Mark Johnson

It’s that time of year, when the words “property taxes” are a big topic of conversation. It’s that time when your local governments are setting their budgets for 2018 and are making tough budget decisions. Each county, city, school and park board are all setting their budgets based on needs and public support for services.

There are some important changes in the upcoming budget cycle that will impact your property taxes based on legislative actions this past session. Your local decision-makers are taking those changes into consideration. Counties, like state government, are experiencing significant reductions in non-property tax revenues that have been impacted by changes in our state’s economy.

The biggest change for taxpayers however is the loss of the 12 percent state-paid property tax credit. You may recall from your last several property tax statements that there has been a line stating: “Less: 12% state-paid tax credit.” Lawmakers recognized last session that this tax credit was not sustainable for the future with the dramatic reduction in state oil tax revenues, so they repealed it in favor of a smaller but more permanent form of property tax reform. Going forward, the state will fund county social services. We feel this is appropriate because counties have no control over social services. These services and their costs are controlled by federal and state mandates. For that reason, counties do not feel property taxes are the appropriate source of revenue.

This is a two-year pilot project. Over the next two years, counties will not levy for social services and instead those services will be funded with state dollars. Prior to this legislative action, counties were allowed under state code to levy up to 20 mills for social services. Since each county levied a different amount, the amount of property tax relief will differ county-by-county and may not equal what citizens received under the 12 percent property tax buy down plan.

It’s important to recognize the level of property tax relief provided by the Legislature over the last several years. Lawmakers’ actions to fund social services is in addition to the commitment they have made to reduce the property tax burden by funding a greater share of the local cost of education. Together they total $1.3 billion in property tax relief in the next biennium. The tax relief they have passed on to you will be noted on the top of your tax statement.

Local governments make their decisions based on feedback from the public. And that’s very important. Local governments have transparency. You, the public, are notified of their meetings. They are open to anyone, and you receive a notice if they plan to increase any mills to balance the budget. Your voice does matter in this process.

Property taxes fund pretty much every service you depend on at the local level. It is law enforcement protection, jails, local highway and road maintenance, snow removal, elections, fire protection, ambulance, public schools, public health, transit, local parks and recreation, county fairs and so much more.  I hope this information helps you understand your property taxes and the changes that may affect them. 

*This Letter to the Editor was forwarded to North Dakota newspapers

Monday, September 18, 2017

Justice Reinvestment Committee Update

The Justice Reinvestment Committee met Wednesday, September 13th in Bismarck. This committee is charged with continuing the study of alternatives to incarceration. This effort has been on-going since 2005 and will focus more this interim on behavior health programs for individuals in the criminal justice system. Committee Chairman, Senator Kelly Armstrong opened the day up with an overarching statement. 
“I envision us focusing our attention on a more holistic approach of how to deal with the non-violent, addiction related offenders. We need to remember that a majority of these offenders are in county facilities. In anything we develop moving forward we need to make sure we are working with the county sheriffs, jails and state’s attorneys.”

NDACo provided the committee with an update on the inmate population at county correctional facilities. According to a recent jail survey, there were 1548 inmates in county facilities on April 1, 2017. This is down about 200 inmates from the last population survey conducted in 2015. What’s interesting is that in North Dakota, 51% of all inmates are in county facilities; compared to nationally where 32% are in county jails. NDACo also provided lawmakers with a look at the jail expansion projects for 2017. This year, 8 counties will open jail expansions that will bring an additional 886 jail beds online.
NDACo has developed a survey to collect data from the state’s 23 jails operating as grade 1 & 2 facilities (holding inmates for more than 96 hours). The survey has been sent to the facilities and information will be analyzed and shared with the Justice Reinvestment Committee. Committee members have key interest in what counties are doing to identify behavior health needs. Preliminary findings show that 18 counties are screening inmates for behavior health issues; three counties employ Behavior Health Specialists; nine counties have employees assigned to provide medical services to inmates and 10 counties have referred inmates have referred inmates for further assessment based on the results of intake screening. 

Members of the committee also received an update on the numbers of juveniles being incarcerated and the juvenile justice system in North Dakota. It was noted that North Dakota kids are arrested for fewer “violent” crimes compared to national figures. However, arrests for “non-violent” offenses like disorderly conduct, property crime and drugs pushed North Dakota’s overall juvenile crime rate higher. Director of the Juvenile Services Division at the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (ND DOCR) told committee members that resources are important to create more options to divert kids away from going into the system.

This committee also took initial testimony on a study of the operation, management, standards and supervision of city, county and regional correctional facilities and a possible transition of the supervision of these facilities from ND DOCR to the Attorney General. Local correctional facilities have been under the oversight of DOCR since 1989. Director, Leann Bertsch, provided committee members with a very descriptive list of jail inspection findings and compliance orders that have been issued as a result of those inspections.

“These inspections take a lot of time and effort. It is a regulatory role and we are in the best position to conduct this role. Removing us from this role would adversely impact the safety of inmates in jails,” Bertsch said.

Bertsch told committee members there would be no advantage to transferring the oversight to the attorney general.

No position has been taken on the oversight study by NDACo or its member associations at this time.