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.

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.