County Commission hosts legislators

Ward County commissioners hosted state legislators from Ward County at a breakfast in the Ex-Serviceman’s Room of the Ward County Courthouse Thursday morning to discuss possibilities for state money to help fund needs within the county.

The discussion, which took place around tables arranged in a board-room rectangular style, was not fruitful in any immediate sense, but no concrete goals were intended by the meeting, unlike the conference call to the governor’s office in late November which discussed the same topics with many of the same arguments.

The commissioners arranged the meeting to inform legislators of what they see as pressing needs for the county, including help in funding courthouse expansion and renovation, as well as expanding the county jail.

“They’re all double-bunked,” said Sheriff Steve Kukowski, explaining the immediate need for more space in the jail. “We don’t have a single person with a cell to himself.”

Kukowski and Sheriff’s Capt. Bob Barnard continued to talk about the ways that western North Dakota’s expansion has been a pressing issue throughout regional systems. Three years ago, Williams County expanded its jail and officials there felt confident that it would be more than

adequate for their needs, but they were overly optimistic about how fast their populations expanded, Kukowski said. Ward County is attempting to learn from Williams County’s mistake by hiring an architect, Don Davidson of JLG Architects, who specialized in jail systems and would take the population rate into account while designing the expansion.

“I never realized ‘build it and they will come’ applied to jails,” joked one state legislator.

There are no architectural plans drawn yet, reported Barnard in an interview after the meeting, but Davidson is currently drawing them. The current ideas will add room for 84 beds, up from the current 104 bunks. The problem is that the plans don’t allow for 84 new cells, just beds, so the jail will have to continue double-bunking. Female prisoners also add problems because men and women have to remain separated; a single female could take up an entire cell block, which is space for five beds.

The boundaries of the county office building and jail expansion extend only to the limits of the current Sheriff’s Office parking lot due to the streets and underground utilities. The county is looking at extending employee parking during and after the expansion to a vacant lot near the railroad, the Ward County Public Library and The Minot Daily News building, according to Barnard.

“The best way to justify (state funding) is through oil-impact dollars,” said Dan Ruby who represents District 38 in Minot.

“There are matching funds for remodeling,” said commissioner John Fjeldahl.

One legislator asked what’s stopping the commissioners from accessing those matching funds.

“There’s nothing in there for jails, there’s nothing in there for state’s attorneys,” said commissioner Jerome Gruenberg. The money is “only in there for courts.”

“The Association of Counties is something to think about” in acquiring funding, suggested Glen Froseth, the representative from Kenmare.

The commissioners and department heads stressed that it is not just the city of Minot and its big-budget plans that need help, but also smaller places in the county.

“It varies,” said Dana Larsen, county highway engineer, on the self-sufficiency capabilities of various county townships. “There are 57 townships in our county and every one of them is a little different.”

“We’re listed as a non-oil-impact county and we received $500,000,” he said about prior state-funded impact support, “and that was huge for us. I hope you guys will continue to support us.”

“It’s not wasteful spending,” said Fjeldahl. “It’s spending that’s needed for people to start living a normal life.”

The legislators had concerns that funding would only be a temporary fix and that maybe the requested support doesn’t think forward enough and that the county will be seeking more very soon. One legislator said that in maybe 10 to 12 years the city of Minot may have a population of 60,000 to 70,000 people, or about the current population of the entire county based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

“In 25 years it may be the largest city in North Dakota,” said Froseth.

In the end there was a timid agreement that a state bill should be sponsored to cover some of the costs.

“Would anyone here be willing to introduce a bill for a county jail?” Devra Smestad, county auditor and treasurer, asked in an attempt to bring the discussion around to substance.

“I will,” Ruby said.

Froseth said that the best way to get state funding is to reveal more than just statistics and plans to legislators. “By all means, tell your local story,” he said.